WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton attacked Republican front-runner Donald Trump on Monday, depicting him as fickle about America’s commitment to Israeli security.
“We need steady hands, not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who-knows-what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable,” she said during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference. While Clinton did not name a specific candidate, she was clearly mocking Trump, who has flip-flopped on his position on Israel and suggested that his ability to negotiate real estate deals would lend itself well to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Well my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable," Clinton said to a cheering crowd.
The former secretary of state is the first of the four presidential contenders to address AIPAC. Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) will speak Monday evening. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declined his invitation, citing campaign events in Western states -- although some speculated he skipped the conference to avoid going head-to-head on foreign policy with Clinton, a former diplomat, in front of the 18,000 AIPAC attendees.
Trump’s invitation to speak at AIPAC offended some Jews, who said the group should not legitimize Trump’s hate speech by offering him a platform at their annual conference. But Clinton took aim at Trump's comments related to the U.S.-Israel relationship, describing him as too erratic and unwilling to maintain U.S. global leadership to be the next commander in chief.
Again, she didn't reference the candidate directly, but it was clear whom she was talking about.
“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,” Clinton said, likely referencing Trump's description of Russian military involvement in Syria as a positive move that minimizes the need for U.S. action there.
Trump responded to the former secretary of state in an interview on CNN.
"She doesn't know me, she doesn't know my policies, she doesn't know what I'm going to be doing," he said, later adding, "I have far steadier hands. I have the steadiest hands."
Until now, most of Clinton’s public speeches and debates have focused on proving why she is more competent than Sanders, who has managed to keep the bulk of discussion on domestic and economic policy issues. Her AIPAC speech is one of the most focused attacks she has offered yet on Trump, her likely opponent in the general election, and she appeared to relish the opportunity to deride his lack of foreign policy experience to a room full of people who are exceptionally concerned about the Middle East policy of America’s next leader.
In a clear effort to differentiate herself from her real estate magnate opponent, Clinton’s speech was sprinkled with anecdotes from her time as first lady in the Bill Clinton administration, and then as the leading U.S. diplomat.
“I don’t think Yitzhak Rabin ever forgave me for banishing him to the White House balcony when he wanted to smoke,” she joked, reminding the audience that she met personally with the revered former Israeli prime minister.
“I know how hard all of this is,” she later empathized on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “I remember what it took just to convene Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas for the three sessions of direct face-to-face talks in 2010 that I presided over.”
On Iran, Clinton faced an inherent disadvantage with this audience compared to her Republican opponents. Last year, AIPAC spent millions of dollars trying to convince a supermajority of Congress to kill the nuclear accord. Clinton is the only candidate speaking at AIPAC this year who supported Obama's effort to reach the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Cognizant of that friction, she prepared the audience to hear “a lot of rhetoric from the other candidates about Iran.” But she assured them that she is the only candidate who could convince the international community to re-apply sanctions on the country if it violates the nuclear agreement, pointing to her past efforts to cobble together an international sanctions coalition against Iran as proof.
While the bulk of her remarks focused on her Republican opposition, Clinton also sought to subtly distance herself from current President Barack Obama, whose tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has caused him to fall out of favor with much of AIPAC.
Clinton, conversely, promised to invite the Israeli premier to the White House as one of her first moves in office. “As we have differences, as any friends do, we will work to resolve them quickly and respectfully,” she said, an implicit criticism of Obama’s failure to prevent spats with Netanyahu from surfacing publicly.
She also spoke of taking the U.S.-Israel relationship “to the next level,” a promise she has made before in a Jewish publication, but the specific policies she outlined are almost identical to the current policies of the Obama administration.
She vowed to maintain Israel’s military superiority over other countries in the region, keep a hawkish watch over Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement, sanction Iran for its growing ballistic missiles program, and shield Israel from criticism and pressure at the United Nations -- all policies currently in effect.
The most notable difference between Clinton and her former boss is not a policy proposal, but their rhetoric. Both, for example, oppose Israeli settlement-building. But while Biden dished out a pointed criticism of Netanyahu’s settlement expansion on Sunday night, Clinton showed a clear reluctance to place blame on Israel for the continued Israeli-Palesti
This slight difference in rhetoric could have meaningful implications if Clinton succeeds Obama as president. The Obama administration has acknowledged it cannot bring about direct negotiations aimed at reaching a two-state solution before the president leaves office at the end of this year. Instead, Obama is expected to deliver a speech; sign a joint statement with the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia; or support a U.N. resolution outlining parameters of an agreement that would lead to Palestinian statehood.
Obama’s willingness to even consider U.N. involvement signals a deep frustration with the lack of progress on direct peace talks during his time in office and a belief that outside pressure may be necessary to jumpstart the process before the possibility for a two-state solution erodes entirely.
Clinton, however, toed the AIPAC line, promising to support direct negotiations, even though there’s no political will from Israeli or Palestinian leadership to do so. She also said she would “vigorously oppose any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution -- including by the U.N. Security Council.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said AIPAC spent billions of dollars trying to convince a supermajority of Congress to kill the nuclear accord. It was millions.
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist