Washington, D.C. — Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is still technically running a primary campaign, but you wouldn’t know it from her Monday-morning appearance here at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. In a speech that made zero mention of nearly vanquished rival Bernie Sanders, Clinton repeatedly blasted Donald Trump to raucous cheers from the thousands of pro-Israeli activists in attendance.
“We need steady hands,” she told the crowd packed into Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center, “not a president who says he’s 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!”
It was a clear dig at Trump, who’s promised to remain a “neutral” arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Republican front-runner is slated to speak at AIPAC Monday evening. But if this morning’s session is any indication, he shouldn’t expect a warm welcome. Clinton’s anti-Trump jabs consistently delighted the crowd, triggering loud applause and multiple standing ovations.
The former secretary of state returned time and again to Trump, painting the specter of his presidency as a grave threat to the state of Israel and the Jewish people. “Tonight, you’ll hear from candidates with very different visions for American leadership in the region and around the world,” Clinton said. “You’ll get a glimpse at a potential U.S. foreign policy that would insult our allies, not engage them, and embolden our adversaries, not defeat them. For the security of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader.”
Mindful of the historic discrimination Jews have experienced as a religious minority, she knocked Trump for “playing coy with white supremacists” and planning to deport millions of illegal immigrants. “We’ve had dark chapters in our history before,” Clinton said. “We remember the nearly 1,000 Jews aboard the St. Louis, who were refused entry in 1939 and sent back to Europe. But America should be better than this, and I believe it’s our responsibility as citizens to say so.”
“If you see bigotry oppose it!” she added. “If you see violence, condemn it! If you see a bully, stand up to him!”
There was a veiled critique of President Obama, her former boss, who has been a source of consternation among right-wing Israelis. “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to visit the White House,” Clinton said, in a seeming reference to Obama’s snub of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Washington last year. The line drew a thunderous, ten-second standing ovation.
She also addressed the Iranian nuclear deal — a sore subject for most AIPAC attendees — promising that her administration wouldn’t hesitate to rip up the deal should Iran violate its terms. “The leaders of Iran will have no doubt that if we see any indication that they are violating their commitments not to seek, develop, or acquire nuclear weapons, the United States will act to stop it — and that we will do so with force, if necessary,” Clinton promised.
#share#Even some of her critics acknowledge that the speech was pitch-perfect. Mel Aranoff, an AIPAC member from Van Nuys, California and a self-described conservative Republican, contrasts her address to Vice President Joe Biden’s “ham-fisted” speech last night, in which he promised that Iran would never get a nuclear weapon under the agreement. “She didn’t make that kind of over-the-top, ridiculous kind of statement,” Aranoff says. “So in that regard it was disciplined, it was focused, it hit the right issues.”
There is, of course, a caveat. “If this was a normal year, and you didn’t have somebody like Trump who was really an outlier and, I think, really contrary to much of the Republican positions, I think she might not have been as well received,” Aranoff admits.
More than her unabashedly pro-Israeli rhetoric, it was Clinton’s criticism of Trump that seemed to fire up AIPAC members. “I think she’s dead on,” says Marc Hammer, an attendee from Kansas City who hopes Clinton’s “phenomenal” Monday-morning speech inspires AIPAC to stand up to Trump. “I think you’ve got to speak up, and she’s got the right approach,” he says.
#related#And what about Clinton’s Democratic rival? Though Sanders is the only presidential candidate with Jewish heritage — he lived on a kibbutz for several months in the 1960s — the other Democratic candidate was not popular among the crowd so enthused by Clinton. Several in the audience expressed sadness over his decision not to attend the AIPAC conference. Others were angry.
“Anybody that’s gone to Israel in his youth like that and never returned, tells me something really serious about his real lack of support for Israel,” Aranoff says.
One had to leave the convention center and march outside, into the crowd of anti-AIPAC protesters, to find someone willing to say something nice about Sanders. “They are afraid of him, you know,” says Abid Omar, a 52-year-old Palestinian-born man who traveled from New York to protest AIPAC. “Hillary Clinton, she’s so deep in their pockets. Bernie doesn’t need them.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.