Donald Trump plays the politician and wins cheers from pro-Israel group

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

Donald Trump prostrated himself before the largest pro-Israeli advocacy group in America Monday evening, and they loved him for it.

“I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel. That’s what politicians do: all talk, no action,” Trump said.

Yet pander is exactly what Trump did before an audience of several thousand members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who were gathered to hear presidential candidates speaking Monday inside the Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C.

Trump, reading from teleprompters for the first time as a presidential candidate, lambasted President Obama and promised that if he is elected president “the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one.”

Trump promised to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “immediately.” He vowed to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He said that any peace-agreement negotiations must start with the Palestinians “knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.”

“I love the people in this room. I love Israel,” Trump said. “I’ve received some of my greatest honors from Israel. … My daughter Ivanka is about to have a beautiful Jewish baby.”

More than half of the audience did not clap at all when Trump entered the enormous hall. But by the end of his 25-minute speech, many were standing, applauding and cheering. He received several standing ovations. 

Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., Mar. 21, 2016. (Photo: Joshua Robers/Reuters)

Trump’s performance marked a new phase in his campaign. A candidate whose stump speech consists of an hour of unconstrained rambling read a prepared speech, his campaign sent out the text of his remarks while he was speaking, and he recited a laundry list of promises custom-designed for the interest-group audience before him.

At moments, Trump sounded like a student giving a book report, reciting statistics about Iran having test-fired ballistic missiles “with a range of 1,250 miles,” and name-dropping “Prime Minister Barak” and “Prime Minister Olmert” in his retelling of the last two decades of peace talks.

It was one of the few times as a presidential candidate so far that Trump has followed the conventions of what traditional politicians do. But it could become more common for Trump as he seeks to broaden his appeal to clinch the Republican nomination and become a general-election candidate.

There was no mistaking Trump’s ability to hold the crowd, even one that greeted him skeptically like this one. But he also stumbled at times. In one instance, Trump lamented that “in Palestinian society … terrorists are treated as martyrs,” but then he went off script, and promised that he would change Palestinian minds.

“It is a horrible, horrible way to think,” he said. “That will end, and it will end soon, believe me.” He did not share details about how he would accomplish this.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who appeared moments after Trump, began his speech with a shot at the GOP frontrunner. Trump referred three times to “Palestine” in his speech, but the U.S. government does not recognize the Palestinian Authority government as that of a sovereign and independent state. Cruz noted that it “might come as a surprise to the previous speaker [that] Palestine has not existed since 1948.”

Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz acknowledges the crowd after his address to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, DC.   (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Trump’s solicitous speech to AIPAC came just hours after he had told reporters at a D.C. press conference that Israel is one of many countries that should pay the U.S. back for its foreign aid.

“I want them to pay us some money,” Trump said. “I think Israel will do that also, yeah. There are many countries that can pay.“

But moments later, Trump also told reporters of Israel: “They help us greatly.”

Cruz also hit Trump for his comment earlier this year that he would be “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Let me be very clear. As president I will not be neutral. America will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel,” Cruz said.

Speaking just before Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan noted that within two months of his taking the job of speaker, the House “voted to fund every penny of our security assistance commitment” to Israel.

“Israel does not fund terror in other countries, but it does help the New York police department fight terrorism in our country,” Ryan said.

Ryan, who has diplomatically but firmly denounced Trump at times over the past months, also noted that Americans are “going to make a big choice in 2016,” but he did not follow that with praise for any presidential candidates, or even a denunciation of any Democrats. Instead, he noted that in the House, he and others are going to “try to help crystallize that choice” and to “set the agenda for the next president.”

(Cover tile photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)