The Walter E. Washington Convention Center was not large enough to hold the record number of attendees, who walked the half-mile to the mammoth Verizon Center to hear big names such as Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton speak about the U.S-Israel relationship.
WASHINGTON — Iran was center stage at this week’s AIPAC Policy Conference. Months after its nuclear reduction deal was ratified internationally and approved by the Senate after the pro-Israel lobby had fought hard to kill it, speaker after speaker denounced the agreement. It was, in the words of Republican candidate Donald Trump, speaking to 18,000 attendees, “catastrophic for America, for Israel and for the whole Middle East.”
Meanwhile, experts, speaking in smaller break-out sessions, concluded that when the deal expires in 15 years, the United States will have no choice but to launch a military attack on Iran.
With the mood against the Iran deal even more pronounced than in years past and the expectation of hearing from presidential candidates from both parties (although Democrat Bernie Sanders declined to appear), the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was not large enough to hold the record number of attendees, who walked the half-mile to the mammoth Verizon Center to hear big names such as Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton speak about the U.S-Israel relationship.
AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr made it clear that Iran was its top priority: “The struggle to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East is far from over,” he said on Sunday night. “So let us be clear. Iran remains the greatest threat to America in the Middle East and to Israel’s ultimate survival.”
Kohr said the other items on AIPAC’s agenda are negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians leading to a two-state solution and increasing American support for Israel’s military strength. The two countries are negotiating a 10-year defense “memorandum of understanding,” and many speakers pushed for the United States to be generous in the defense equipment it will provide Israel.
If Iran was the meat of the conference, the expected appearance of Trump was the sugar high that fueled two days of meetings and speeches.
“That’s what really got me excited,” said Michael Goller from Cincinnati, a Trump supporter.
Trump’s expected appearance led to calls for walkouts or boycotts of his speech in protest of his prior incendiary remarks against Mexicans, Muslims, women, Jews and the disabled. In the end, the protests seemed muted, although Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue donned a tallit before rushing Trump’s stage. He was quickly escorted out by security.
Lee Rosenfield of Philadelphia, a member of the Jewish Publishing Group, said he supported Clinton for president. He favored taking “the moral high road” when it came to Trump, “all while disagreeing with his posturing, his distasteful opinions.”
What AIPAC heard from the Republican frontrunner was a scripted, Trump-like address touting the candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides and his commitment to Israel’s security.
“I speak to you today as a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel,” he began. “I came here to speak to you about where I stand on the future of American relations with our strategic ally, our unbreakable friendship and our cultural brother, the only democracy in the Middle East, the State of Israel.”
He said his “No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” A few minutes later he said, “At the very least, we must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable. And we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before, folks, believe me.”
Trump denounced the United Nations and said his administration would veto anything that came from discussions in the Security Council “for terms of an eventual agreement between Israel and Palestine.” Such an imposed agreement would be “a total and complete disaster,” he said.
He said Israel and the Palestinians must negotiate themselves. The United States could act as a facilitator.
“What Obama gets wrong about deal-making is that he constantly applies pressure to our friends and rewards our enemies,” he said, drawing applause.
“The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is absolutely, totally unbreakable,” he said. “They must come to the table willing and able to stop the terror being committed on a daily basis against Israel. They must do that. And they must come to the table willing to accept that Israel is a Jewish state and it will forever exist as a Jewish state.”
Trump’s 25-minute speech was punctuated by hearty applause. But he received the loudest cheers when he attacked the president.
“President Obama is in his final year — yay,” Trump said.
AIPAC’s leadership on Tuesday apologized to the president.
“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our President Barack Obama,” Lillian Pinkus, AIPAC’s newly installed president, said, joined by other AIPAC lay and professional leaders.
AIPAC’s evident anguish in the aftermath of Trump’s remarks could undercut the hopes that the Republican front-runner’s speech to the lobby would somehow help bring him into the mainstream.
“There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry,” Pinkus said, her voice choking. “We are deeply disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with nor condone.”
Trump was the third Republican in line speaking on Monday afternoon. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a longshot presidential candidate, was first out, followed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas followed Trump.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu closed the conference with a warning about the Iran agreement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, check your enthusiasm at the door,” he said by satellite feed. “You see, this deal doesn’t make peace more likely. By fueling Iran’s aggressions with billions of dollars in sanctions relief, it makes war more likely.”
JTA contributed to this article.
David Holzel and Daniel Schere write for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated paper of the Jewish Exponent.