The ‘Final Five’ presidential hopefuls took on a town hall-style debate on Monday night in Washington. The last five candidates from both of the major parties shared a stage for the first time in the campaign season.
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich all stood before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, the American pro-Israel lobby) to deliver speeches, in what has become something like a rite of passage for those hoping to win the White House. Sanders gave his speech from Utah.
All Eyes on Trump
Monday night was a good night for Donald Trump. The candidate, looking and sounding more reserved than ever before, seemed to do well on stage at American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
With the Obama Administration firmly in his crosshairs, Trump received his loudest applause of the night when he cheered, “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me. And you know it, and you know it better than anybody.” Trump also noted that it was President Obama’s last year in the White House—also to the loud applause and laughter of the crowd.
Assuming a firmly hawkish, pro-Israel stance, Trump ran down the checklist of “all the right things” and took shots at the UN, Hilary Clinton, and the Iran Deal. He also named and chastised “the culture of hatred” in reference to Palestinian society.
Not one to miss the opportunity to gain cheap points, Trump sneered at the Obama administration, “You see, what President Obama gets wrong about deal-making is that he constantly applies pressure to our friends and rewards our enemies.” Mr. Trump also described Clinton as “a total disaster, by the way”, in an effort to tie her past efforts in helping to get the Iran Deal passed more closely to Obama’s Administration.
Although Trump’s speech played well to the crowd at AIPAC, earning him a standing ovation and applause, he wasn’t quite able to win over everyone. Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after the candidate’s remarks, AIPAC President Lilian Pinkus took the stage to strongly condemned his remarks against President Obama.
“We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage,” Pinkus said. “While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama. We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”
And while the organization is trying to put distance between themselves and Trump’s distinctly divisive rhetorical style, he seems to have made strides with the crowd.
Although, we should be cautious of being overly generous of how well Trump did Monday night.As VOX has reported, “looks might be deceiving”. Many of those in attendance left feeling decidedly skeptical of Trump’s speech. His pattern of outlandish statements and opportunist reversals on his policy stances have made it difficult for people to trust him—a pattern that is becoming a reoccurring thing for the Trump campaign.
Clinton’s Political Pragmatism Takes Center Stage
Most political commentators are focusing on Clinton’s hardline, pro-Israel stance from Monday night. However, to be fair, Clinton’s speech was fairly lukewarm on what she would do as President. Signaling that we could expect a continuation of the status quo from the Obama Administration, her actual remarks didn’t present any radical shift from her previous policy positions on Israel. The one notable difference in last night’s speech was the rhetoric, which was meant to signal sympathy with pro-Israel groups and right-wing politicians.
If the goal was to sound as appealing and un-frightening as possible to the AIPAC audience—Clinton certainly succeeded. Ironically enough, the speech’s tone came off as something we’re more prone to hearing from Republicans with mentions of the dangers of the BDS (boycott, divestments, and sanctions) movement that is gaining traction on US college campuses and the recent killings near Tel Aviv. But while Clinton’s tone was a perfect copy of right-wing stump speeches on Israel, her actual policies were decidedly neutral.
It is this tendency to be neutral on tough issues that Clinton has consistently struggled with throughout the campaign season. Many liberal pundits are interpreting her weak stance on the more “typically Democrat” rhetoric, known to be more tempered, on issues related to Israel as alienating to her base.
Clinton was nothing if not tactical in her approach to Israel. Pulling on years of hard-won experience as Secretary of State, the Democratic forerunner is simply acknowledging a truism in US policy towards Israel. Pro-Israel groups and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tend to be more willing to negotiate when they don’t feel backed into a corner. A scared Israel is an Israel that is more prone to military strikes and excursions that make it more difficult for US policymakers to navigate complex international discussions.
While Clinton gave us hawkish, pro-Israel rhetoric from the right and a tepid, promise of the status quo from the left—it seems that she may have just broke even in at the AIPAC convention on Monday night.
Cruz Scores Big, Kasich Flat-lines, and Sanders Delivers Great Speech—From Utah
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) delivered his speech last at the AIPAC convention. Going on stage directly after Donald Trump’s most coherent speech this election cycle was no small feat—but the Senator handled it with grace and overt criticism of his biggest component that are becoming a hallmark of his campaign.
Never straying from his pro-Israel stance, Cruz took a moment to call out a “blunder” in Trump’s speech on the use of the word ‘Palestine’. “Palestine has not existed since 1948,” pointing to someone who is more familiar with US-Israeli relations than just what was on his teleprompter. Cruz also took the time to hit Trump over the head with previous statements that he would be neutral in matter over Israel and Palestine.
“My leading Republican opponent promised he, as president, would be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians,” Cruz said. “Let me be very, very clear: As president, I will not be neutral. America will stand unapologetically with the nation of Israel.”
All in all, Cruz left the stage with a strong speech and friendly crowd.
Governor John Kasich (R-OH) offered warm anecdotes about his relationship with Israel and her supporters on Monday night. Never straying far from the party line, and with a firm, pro-Israel stance, Kasich toed the line between politely supportive of the Israeli state and fairly neutral rhetoric on the relations between the US and Israel.
“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” Kasich noted, “[and] has in turn been a faithful and dependable friends. The American friends of Israel are not fair-weather friends. They recognize the strategic hinge with Israel and that America’s and Israel’s interests are tightly intertwined despite our inevitable disagreements from time to time.”
His remarks signaled a commitment to continuing the relationship between the US and Israel without much fanfare about stoking the flames of controversy. His comments touched on the unpopular Iran Deal and his relationship with various Israeli commentators and advocates.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was the only candidate that declined to speak at the AIPAC convention on Monday night. The only Jewish candidate in the race decided to give his remarks from a high school in Utah, in place of attending the convention. Sanders has always held sympathetic views towards the Palestinians and it can be reasonably assumed that many of his comments wouldn’t have gone over well in the pro-Israel crowd at the convention.
“When we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored,” he said.
Sanders then went on to talk about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, calling it “absurd for elements in Netanyahu’s government to say that building more settlements in the West Bank is the appropriate response.”
The Senator also called out AIPAC’s opposition to the Iran Deal, disagreeing that the “idea that the pro-Israel position was to oppose the deal.” Sanders noted that, “Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will strengthen not only America’s security, but Israel’s security as well.”
As unpopular and uncommon as those opinions are for a US presidential hopeful, Sander’s showed strong adherence to his ideals in his rejection of the mainstream US narrative towards Israel. The candidate may not have won any points with pro-Israel groups on Monday night, but he definitely solidified the allegiance from his electorate base with his commitment to his positions.