From the moment Hillary Clinton entered the huge convention hall, it was obvious she was among friends.
There were lots of hellos and head nods as she walked toward the stage to address the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington Monday morning, where the tough and substantive speech she delivered may be remembered as the beginning of her takedown of Donald Trump.
Until now, Trump has succeeded in knocking out almost all his Republican opponents by deriding them as weak and ineffectual. But unlike that hapless bunch, Clinton is coming out swinging.
As a pure performance, she hit all the right notes, her voice dropping when she recalled holding the hands of men and women in Israeli hospital wards whose lives were torn apart by terrorism, then rising with indignation that anyone could advocate neutrality. She didn’t name Trump of course, but anyone with even a passing interest in the region took note of his comments earlier this month that he believes in being “somewhat neutral” in his approach towards the decades-old conflict in the Middle East.
“Israel’s security is not negotiable, and anybody who doesn’t understand that has no business being our president,” Clinton thundered.
She conjured up the perils awaiting the next president, the unprecedented chaos and conflict in the Middle East, the ongoing terrorist attacks in Israel, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. “We have to get this right,” she said to robust and sustained applause. Outsourcing to dictators, a reference to Trump’s praise for Russian involvement in Syria, or thinking America no longer has vital interests in the region now that energy independence is on the horizon is “dangerously wrong,” Clinton said.
“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. Well my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable,” she declared.
If Clinton’s goal was to close off any opening for Trump to court the prominent donors and voters that support AIPAC, she largely succeeded by invoking his own words and raising uncertainty about what he might or might not do.
She took virtually every position that AIPAC expects from its political allies with one exception: She did not call for the U.S. embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as Trump and other Republicans have done.
But she did take a step that in the current context of U.S. Israeli relations was unexpected when she pledged, “One of the first things I’ll do in office is invite the Israeli Prime Minister to visit the White House.” The crowd erupted in the most thunderous applause of the morning.
Clinton’s open invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu signals her eagerness to separate herself from President Obama’s fractious relationship with the Israeli leader, and the audience’s reaction no doubt signaled AIPAC’s relief to once more be back in the good graces of the leading contender in the Democratic Party.
The only time the audience was noticeably quiet was when Clinton talked about how she led the negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu and AIPAC opposed. It was only when she said the U.S. position is “distrust and verify” that she got a positive response.
For those who have been following the machinations of peacemaking in the Middle East, the Holy Grail for some time has been the two-state solution. It was only toward the end of her speech that Clinton returned to what remains official U.S. policy. Despite many setbacks, she said, she remains convinced that a negotiated two-state agreement is the only way to achieve a democratic Jewish state and a homeland for the Palestinian people to govern themselves.
“Everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlements,” Clinton said, a gentle reference to a major irritant between successive U.S. administrations and Israeli governments.
Clinton was not there to open old wounds but to fortify herself with old friends and allies against a likely general election campaign against Trump. In a democracy, differences are aired, she said.
“But what Americans are hearing on the campaign trail this year is something else entirely. Encouraging violence. Playing coy with white supremacists. Calling for 12 million immigrants to be rounded up and deported. Demanding we turn away refugees because of their religion and proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the United States.”
“Now, we’ve had dark chapters in our history before,” she continued, recalling nearly 1,000 Jews aboard the St. Louis who were turned away in 1939 and sent back to Europe. “America should be better than this,” she said. “If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. If you see a bully, stand up to him.”
In her otherwise sober remarks, Clinton allowed herself one light moment, recalling how “some of us remember a woman, Golda Meir, who led the Israeli government decades ago and wonder what’s taking us so long here in America,” Clinton said with a smile.
For anyone wondering whether women could be tough enough to lead a country, Golda Meir showed the way. Now it’s Clinton’s turn.