WASHINGTON — Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump delivered a speech to the country’s largest pro-Israel gathering Monday intended to clarify his views on the US-Israel relationship.
But in an address that included details of Middle East geopolitical relationships, the controversial GOP presidential candidate offered mixed signals on his plans for the Iran nuclear deal under a Trump administration.
“The number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” he said at the onset of his speech, winning a standing ovation from American Israel Public Affairs Committee delegates who spent the first half of last year stridently opposing the deal.
Later in the speech, he seemed to say he would enforce the deal rigorously, not “dismantle” it.
The speech was well received at the AIPAC gathering after Trump’s opening lines: “I speak to you today as a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel. I’m a newcomer to politics but not to backing the Jewish state.”
He went on to rail against the Iran nuclear deal.
“I have been in business a long time. I know deal-making, and let me tell you this deal is catastrophic for America, for Israel and the whole of the Middle East,” he said, a line he has used in some of the earliest GOP debates earlier this year.
“The problem here is fundamental. We’ve rewarded the world’s leading state sponsor of terror with 150 billion dollars and we’ve received nothing in return.”
After winning enthusiastic applause for that tough talk on the Iran deal, the audience giggled when he claimed that he had “studied the deal more than anyone else.”
“The problem is that they can keep the terms and get the bombs by simply running out the clock, and of course they’ll keep the billions and billions of dollars that we so stupidly and foolishly gave them,” Trump said. “When the restrictions expire, Iran will have an industrial-size nuclear capability ready to go.”
Trump, who has been criticized for avoiding any serious discussion of foreign policy, recited facts and data throughout the speech, from the range of the ballistic missiles tested by Iran in recent weeks to figures for Iranian-sponsored terror attacks in recent years.
He outlined what he described as his “strategy,” including standing up to “Iran’s aggressive push to destabilize and dominate the region.” Detailing Tehran’s impact, Trump highlighted Iran’s arming of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as well as financial support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and offer of payment to Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank, describing it as a “deplorable, deplorable situation.”
“We will totally dismantle Iran’s global terrorist network, which is big and powerful – but not powerful like us,” he promised.
After promising to dismantle the nuclear deal, Trump then seemed to return to past assurances that instead of “tearing up” the nuclear deal, as other Republican candidates have promised, he would instead “enforce the terms of the previous deal and we will enforce it like you haven’t seen the terms of a contract enforced.”
Trump complained that Iran has been able to test ballistic missiles in contravention of UN resolutions that oppose it. “The problem is that no one has done anything about it. We will – we will – I promise you,” he declared.
Whereas he was booed during the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Candidates’ Forum in December for refusing to committ to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, Trump was eager to change the narrative of neutrality, which has proved a powerful tool for his opponents to ding his pro-Israel credentials.
“We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” he declared to applause. “We will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally the state of Israel.”
Trump received another round of applause from the audience when he criticized “the utter weakness and incompetence of the United Nations.”
“The UN is not a friend to democracy, not a friend to freedom, not a friend to the United States of America where it has its home, and it is surely not a friend to the state of Israel.”
But that applause was dwarfed by the enthusiasm he garnered from many quarters in the 18,000-strong crowd when he noted that “President Obama [is] in his final year — yay!”
“He may be the worst thing that ever happened to Israel,” he said.
He then warned about an impending international effort to impose a peace settlement via the United Nations. “With the president in his final year, discussions have been swirling to bring a Security Council resolution on terms of a final agreement.
“An agreement imposed by the United Nations would be a total and complete disaster,” he predicted. “The US must oppose this resolution and use the power of our veto, which I will use as president, 100 percent.”
Trump warned against imposing any sort of a solution on Israel and the Palestinians through international organizations. “That’s not how you make a deal. Deals are made when parties come together.”
Imposing an external solution “will only further delegitimatize [sic] Israel. It will be a disaster and a catastrophe for Israel” and “reward Palestinian terrorism.”
Speaking of that terrorism, he noted the stabbing death last week of American veteran Taylor Force in a Palestinian terror attack in Jaffa. “You don’t reward behavior like that. You can not do it,” he continued. “There is only one way you treat that kind of behavior. You have to confront it.”
Instead of backing a UN peace push, Trump said, “the United States can be useful as a facilitator of negotiations. But no one should be telling Israel that it must abide by an agreement made by others thousands of miles away who don’t really know what’s happening in the region.”
“We know Israel is willing to deal,” he said. “Israel has been trying to sit down at the negotiating table without preconditions for years.” It was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he said, who has refused peace overtures.
“When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second class citizen will end on day one,” Trump vowed.
“I will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately. I have known him for many years. We will work closely together to bring stability and peace to the entire region.”
While a number of protests were planned for Trump’s address – and an estimated 300 protesters did leave the vast arena where he delivered his speech – the opposition was barely palpable in a room of some 18,000. Shouts of “I love you Trump” were coupled with audible boos, and while some jumped to their feet in standing ovations, other attendees sat in stony silence.
At least one protester was escorted out of the arena when he appeared to unfurl a banner.