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Israel Takes Center Stage for Candidates

Nearly all of presidential field addresses the AIPAC conference

Protestors gather outside the Verizon Center as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke at the AIPAC conference. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Protestors gather outside the Verizon Center as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke at the AIPAC conference. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

As GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump took the stage at a pro-Israel conference Monday night, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld rose to his feet.  

Seated six rows from the stage, Herzfeld held up his hands and said, “This man is wicked. He inspires racists and bigots. He encourages violence. Do not listen to him.”  

He was escorted out by security and he wept as he told reporters he felt compelled to act.

“Everything that we believe in is at stake with this man,” said Herzfeld, who leads a congregation at the Ohev Shalom synagogue in D.C. “Every single thing that we believe in in our lives is threatened by this wicked man.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference about a mile from the Capitol provided a platform for Trump and other presidential candidates  to demonstrate their commitment to Israel. It also drew protesters, who shut down parts of F Street outside the Verizon Center.

Given the lukewarm support Trump voiced in a February town hall meeting and his anti-immigration rhetoric, some of AIPAC’s delegates arrived with reservations about him.

“I didn’t come here to pander to you tonight about Israel,” Trump told the crowd, drawing some murmurs from the press corps. He then proceeded to declare his staunch support for the nation, stating, “There is no daylight between America and its most reliable ally, the state of Israel.”

He implored the crowd to “believe me” several times, when he proclaimed he’s studied the Iran nuclear deal, knows “how to deal with trouble,” and, when it comes to enforcing the nuclear agreement, “We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before.”  

The audience was generally cordial, but many of Trump’s laugh lines fell flat.  

Some of Trump’s biggest applause of the night came when said he would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a stance he had originally waffled on during a December candidate forum with the Republican Jewish Coalition. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas also said he would move the embassy to Jerusalem.  

The conference drew Cruz and the other remaining GOP presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich, while Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton addressed the group Monday morning. Democratic hopeful Bernard Sanders, a Vermont senator, did not appear.  

Kasich received one of the warmest receptions of the GOP candidates, bringing the crowd to its feet more than half a dozen times.  

All of the presidential candidates addressed the Iranian nuclear agreement, with Republicans criticizing the deal. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., drew the audience to its feet when he declared, “I think it was a terrible deal.”  

Trump’s AIPAC speech capped a day of events in D.C., including meeting with The Washington Post editorial board, huddling with some GOP members of Congress, addressing the press at his new hotel, and appearing on CNN to preview his AIPAC remarks.  

Trump did not address the question of foreign aid to Israel during his speech, but at an earlier news conference, he suggested Israel should repay some if its aid.  

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. called his comments “outrageous” and said they were “further proof that Donald Trump does not understand America’s role in peacekeeping, or the vital importance of our historic, strategic alliance with Israel.”  

As policy was being discussed inside the arena, groups of protesters gathered outside, some denouncing his candidacy, others bringing attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Metropolitan Police corralled them and confused pedestrians who tried to get by.

Some Jewish protesters who were condemning Trump said their opposition was less about what a Trump presidency would mean for them or the state of Israel but rather condemning his rhetoric for society as a whole, something Clinton emphasized in her speech Monday.

Ned Miltenbaum, 65 of Bethesda, Md., said he was “horrified” and “terrified” by comments Trump has made about other minorities.

“We have an obligation to defend all those oppressed around the world,” said Miltenbaum, who is Jewish.

Lenny Tender, 52, also of Bethesda, said Trump is drumming up hatred for immigrants, a tactic that had historically been used to justify violence.

“It’s a story that’s been told many times,” Tender said.

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