This morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu experienced something that American politicians have become all too familiar with — being overshadowed by Donald Trump.
The prime minister’s video-linked speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's conference was preceded by the unscheduled introduction of AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus and four other leaders. Choking back tears, Pinkus apologized for Monday night's speeches, implying that Donald Trump had violated a nonpartisan standard.
“From the moment this conference began, until this moment, we have preached a message of unity,” Pinkus said. “We have said, in every way we can think of: Come together. But last evening, something occurred which has the potential to drive us apart, to divide us. We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
Trump’s speech, which he largely recited from a teleprompter, was actually notable for its low level of invective. A candidate who has mocked Marco Rubio’s thirstiness, Rand Paul’s looks, Jeb Bush’s energy level and Carly Fiorina’s face confined his criticism of Obama to a few tossed-off insults.
“With President Obama in his final year — yay!” said Trump, adding an exclamation not in the text and earning huge applause. Later, diverting from his text again, he called the president “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.”
AIPAC, already criticized for giving Trump an invitation, decided the rhetoric needed condemnation.
“While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama,” Pinkus said. “There were people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry. We are disappointed that so many people applauded the sentiment that we neither agree with or condone. Let us close this conference in recognition that when we say ‘Come together,’ we still have a lot to learn from each other, and we still have much work to do.”
Yet while AIPAC invites candidates and leaders from both parties, and while it discourages protests from the audience, Trump was hardly the first speaker to criticize a sitting president. He was followed on the stage by Ted Cruz, who compared the administration’s deal with Iran to the 1938 Munich agreement that handed Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Four years earlier, AIPAC allowed Mitt Romney to address the conference by satellite, and he went on to accuse the president of “lecturing” Israel and “emboldening” the Palestinians.
But no AIPAC speech had been criticized like Trump’s. Jane Eisner, the editor in chief of Jewish news source the Forward, wrote that she was “ashamed that any of my fellow Jews could applaud” Trump.
“I am ashamed that they would succumb to the pandering lies,” she wrote. “Donald Trump ought to have been received civilly but silently by AIPAC. Instead, the applause spoke volumes.”
Chemi Shalev, a correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz, left the Trump speech in shock and asked how fellow Jews could have applauded it.
“The enthusiastic reception given Trump could very well deepen the fault lines inside the Jewish community that were uncovered over the summer in the bitter clash over the Iran nuclear deal,” he wrote, adding that “it was good enough to transform Trump from a morally repugnant presidential candidate into a run of the mill contender who deserves as much respect as the others.”
It was the reaction — wild applause now available to view on Trump's campaign website — that was officially rejected by AIPAC.