WASHINGTON (AFP) - Mrs Hillary Clinton and Mr Donald Trump exchanged jabs on Monday (March 21) as they separately courted a massive crowd of pro-Israel lobbyists, putting their support for the Jewish state front and centre in their White House battle.
Democrat Clinton bashed her rival as prejudiced and insufficiently pro-Israel, signalling some of her likely points of attack should she face the Republican front runner in November’s US presidential election.
Mr Trump dismissed the former secretary of state as “a total disaster” and proclaimed his own “life-long” love and support for America’s pre-eminent ally in the Middle East.
“When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one,” Mr Trump told thousands of people attending a conference of Washington’s most influential pro-Israel lobby.
Mr Trump’s appearance at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering was a point of contention for some, including a number of rabbis who vowed to walk out in protest when he took the stage. But Mr Trump’s address was largely peaceful.
Mrs Clinton earlier packed the arena, where she implored the crowd: “If you see a bully, stand up to him.”
“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,” the Democratic front runner told more than 15,000 attendees.
“My friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable.” US presidential hopefuls routinely make pilgrimages to AIPAC during election years.
Republicans Ted Cruz and John Kasich also addressed the meeting while Mr Clinton’s challenger for the Democratic nomination, Mr Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, declined citing a heavy campaign schedule.
Mr Trump has raised eyebrows in the Jewish community in the past for stressing he wanted to be a neutral broker and not take “sides” between Israel and the Palestinians when it came to peace talks.
On Monday, he seemed to change tack.
“We will move the embassy (from Tel Aviv) to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” he said to a standing ovation.
“And we will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel.”
He also insisted that his “number one priority” would be to dismantle President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Mr Trump has come under pressure to release more details of his foreign policy platform and his team of consultants, amid reports that mainstream conservative and neo-conservative experts are loath to endorse him.
Ahead of his speech, he unveiled the names of half a dozen advisors, telling The Washington Post they include Mr Keith Kellogg, a retired US Army lieutenant general turned consultant who was chief operating officer for the US occupation of Iraq during its disastrous early months in 2003 and 2004.
When pressed on the choice at a news conference in Washington, Mr Trump, who has said he opposed the Iraq war from the start, dismissed the concern.
“He has a different opinion,” he said of Mr Kellogg. “But I do like different opinions.”
Mr Trump said he held a closed-door meeting with Republican players in Washington including Senator Jeff Sessions and other lawmakers, and Mr Jim DeMint, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“We had a good meeting and can’t believe how far we’ve come,” he said.
He also sought to portray himself as “very different” from Mrs Clinton, knocking the former secretary of state on trade and her Middle East policy.
“She will be weak on the military and weak frankly with other countries,” he said.
And on CNN, he said Mr Clinton lacks the stamina for the presidency.
Mr Trump has set off alarm bells with his rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans and refugees, and his refusal to directly demand an end to violent skirmishes at his campaign rallies between protesters and his supporters.
“I don’t want violence,” he Trump insisted, before quickly calling the protesters “professional agitators” who are “not good people.”
Without naming him, Mr Clinton assailed Mr Trump for “encouraging violence” on the campaign trail, “playing coy with white supremacists, calling for 12 million immigrants to be rounded up and deported (and) demanding we turn away refugees because of their religion.
“America should be better than this, and I believe it’s our responsibility as citizens to say so,” she told the crowd.
Mrs Clinton stressed that Israelis and Palestinians should not give up on hopes for peace, but she put forth a hard line against perpetrators and supporters of recent violence in the Jewish state.
“These attacks must end immediately,” she said.
“Palestinian leaders need to stop inciting violence, stop celebrating terrorists as martyrs and stop paying rewards to their families.”
In her comments, Clinton kept alluding to her Republican rivals and particularly Mr Trump, warning against a US foreign policy “that would insult our allies, not engage them, and embolden our adversaries, not defeat them.”
“For the security of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader... able to block efforts to isolate or attack Israel,” she said.