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Donald Trump shifts towards Israel at annual AIPAC meeting

Billionaire Republican became less 'neutral' about the decades-old dispute when addressing pro-Israel lobby
Trump described an “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel (AFP)

NEW YORK, United States – Property tycoon Donald Trump walked back assertions that he would be a neutral negotiator in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a pro-Israel meet on Monday, vowing to defend Israel from all its enemies.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington, Trump, the Republican frontrunner in this year’s White House race, described an “unbreakable bond” between the US and Israel.

“When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one,” Trump told delegates, in a speech that heaped praise on Israel and derided Palestinians as perpetrators of violence.

Recalling rounds of failed peace talks between the two parties, Trump blamed Palestinian leaders.

“To make a great deal, you need two willing participants,” Trump said. “We know Israel is willing to deal. Israel has been trying to sit down at the negotiating table without preconditions for years.”

Trump also vowed to halt Iran’s military influence abroad and to veto any draft UN Security Council resolution that sought to dictate a peace accord to Israel, saying the two parties needed to haggle out a deal together.

Trump’s comments were being heavily scrutinised. Last month, he departed from the Republican Party playbook by suggesting he was “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to better negotiate between both parties.

Clinton takes aim at Trump

Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton seized upon this. Though she did not mention Trump by name, she aimed at the billionaire during her keynote speech to AIPAC earlier in the day, with words directed at the man she is widely expected to run against in November’s presidential ballot.

“I know that all of you understand what’s at stake in this election,” Clinton said. 

“We need steady hands, not a president who says he is neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who knows what on Wednesday because everything’s negotiable. Well, my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable.”

Clinton accused Trump of being reluctant to take a stand.

“The next president will sit down at that desk and start making decisions that will affect both the lives and livelihoods of every American, and the security of our friends around the world. So we have to get this right,” Clinton said. 

“Candidates for president who think the United States can outsource Middle East security to dictators, or that America no longer has vital national interests at stake in this region are dangerously wrong.”

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think tank, praised Trump for deviating from the “spontaneous rambling of utter nonsense” he usually delivers, even though it represented only “forcefully-delivered platitudes”. 

“It was short on any specifics, and sounded like it was written for him to say what the audience would want to hear. Ultimately, it just reinforced Trump’s central claim that he will be a leader who can make good deals and get things done,” Cristol told Middle East Eye.

Cristol also praised Clinton for her “concrete policy proposals” on US-Israel defence ties and missile defence systems, describing the former first lady as the candidate with the “most nuanced view of Israel, if not the conflict itself”. 

“She conveyed that she understands Israel, has a long history with Israel, and would genuinely support it in a wide variety of ways,” he said. “Unlike Trump’s speech, Hillary’s couldn’t have been written by someone who only knew about Israel from reading the mornings’ newspapers."

Abba Solomon, author of The Speech, and Its Context, a book about Israel, said Trump had made “every promise that is required” to curry favour at AIPAC, which can nudge money and votes to presidential wannabes.

“For Trump, a peace deal would happen after Palestinians accepted the Zionist formulation of Israel as the Jewish state, and that Israel’s bond with the US is totally unbreakable,” Solomon told MEE.

“Trump’s references to Palestinians were only as haters and evil-doers who must submit to Israeli strength and American dictates. There was no reference to Arab displacement or suffering in Palestine since 1948.”

Solomon also criticised Clinton, as well as Republican presidential candidate John Kasich and the Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who “shamelessly pandered” to the pro-Israel lobby. 

AIPAC protests

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a pressure group, said the protestors outside AIPAC, including Jewish Americans and anti-Trump activists, showed that US public opinion was shifting against Israel’s policies. 

“All of the candidates who spoke at the AIPAC policy conference today obscured the truth: that Israel’s continued settlement construction, entrenchment of occupation, and excessive uses of force against Palestinian civilians demonstrate that it is not a partner for peace,” Vilkomerson told MEE.

“Today’s speeches by presidential candidates made clear that what it takes to get applause at AIPAC is dehumanising Palestinians: obscuring their calls for freedom and dignity, erasing the systematic daily violence of the occupation and siege of Gaza, and repeating racist assertions that Palestinians teach their children to hate.”

Trump gets a mixed reaction from American Jews. A group of liberal rabbis, vexed by his demagogic nationalism and diatribes against Muslims and Mexicans, arranged a protest at AIPAC, a three-day conference that ends on Tuesday.

Parts of the Jewish Republican establishment may be getting used to Trump. Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino tycoon and political funder, said he could back the New York realtor. “Why not?” he reportedly said. 

Israel depends on US military and diplomatic support. The two countries are currently negotiating how much Washington will give Israel once their current military deal, worth about $3bn annually, expires in 2018. 

Israelis and their supporters in Washington obsess over a relationship that has been strained in recent years by tensions between US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Their relationship has yet to recover from last year’s row over a US-led international nuclear deal with Iran, Israel’s arch foe. Perhaps reflecting this sourness, Obama travelled to Cuba on Sunday and left Vice President Joe Biden to address AIPAC. 

Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, declined AIPAC’s invitation after more than 5,000 web users, including the Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters, backed an online petition urging the democratic socialist to stay away. 

US public support for Israel remains strong. Last month’s Gallup survey found that 62 percent of Americans sympathised more with Israelis, while 15 percent favoured Palestinians. The poll also found that Republican voters are more avowedly pro-Israel than Democrats.