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'Wild card' Trump sets sights on wooing pro-Israel voters

© AFP file photo | US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail

Text by Nicole TRIAN

Latest update : 2016-03-21

As US presidential candidates prepare to speak before America’s leading pro-Israel group on Monday, all eyes in the audience are likely to be on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.

He's the wild card whose remarks about Israel have created some anxiety among many who will attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington.

Trump's Republican rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich are expected to toe the party line while Hillary Clinton is unlikely to espouse anything that will upset her democratic support base.

As for Bernie Sanders, who is trying to become the first Jewish candidate to win a major party’s presidential nomination, he chose to opt out of the event. His decision has hardly surprised commentators who say his progressive policies, particularly those on Israel, are at odds with pro-Israeli groups.

The AIPAC promotes itself as non-partisan and is the largest religious lobby group in the US.

But Trump’s ambivalence on Israel has caused unease among its pro-Israel members.

The billionaire businessman vowed Sunday to use his AIPAC address to lay down for the first time his ideas for US policy in the region.

"Trump has said a lot of things about Israel over the years, most of it favourable but some of it more ambiguous," said Josh Block, a former AIPAC official who now heads The Israel Project, a Washington-based pro-Israel group.

"This will be an opportunity to address the ambiguity before a serious foreign policy audience,"  Bloch said.

The leading Republican candidate came closest to a policy stance during a town hall meeting in Charleston on February 17 where he said he would be a "sort of neutral guy" when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s chief opponents, on the other hand, both Republican and Democrat, have long records of supporting Israel. Ted Cruz has pledged absolute support for Israel. His campaign website features an entire section on Israel, whilst Trump's makes no reference to it.

Clinton, who has publicly backed Israel for decades, has been warmly received by the Jewish lobby largely because of her track record in Middle East affairs. Only recently she back-flipped on a policy she had promoted at the State Department, saying she was against the Obama administration’s 2009 push for a settlement freeze. However, like her rival Sanders, her support for the Iranian nuclear deal could potentially put her offside with some of AIPAC’s voters.

Both Cruz and Trump have pledged to rip up the nuclear accord if elected to office.

Tough crowd

But for Trump the crowd at Monday’s event may be his toughest yet.

A group of 40 rabbis last week said they would walk out of his speech in protest at his racist rhetoric, position on immigration and Muslims, and his indifference to support for his campaign from anti-Semitic identities.

Among those planning the boycott is South Florida Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin who said Trump’s appearance "poses political, moral, and even spiritual quandaries".

Last year "the Donald" drew boos from the Republican Jewish Coalition when he refused to commit to a longstanding Republican campaign promise to relocate the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Sidestepping the issue of Israel and US relations in the Middle East has done little to dent Trump’s success.

"You understand a lot of people have gone down in flames trying to make that deal,” Trump said, commenting on peace talks in the region. “So I don't want to say whose fault it is - I don't think that helps."

'Pro-Jewish not pro-Israel'

Dr Gina Yannitell Reinhardt of the Department of Government at the University of Essex told FRANCE 24 she expected Trump would adopt a different tactic.

“One reason why Trump hasn’t had a strong position on Israel is that he hasn’t been forced to take a position yet,” Reinhardt said. “His position has been to be pro-Jewish, not pro-Israel. Today, we will see a difference in his rhetoric that is more pro-Israel than it has been.”

A Brookings poll in December 2015 found a clear partisan divide on the issue of Israel with 76 percent of Republicans saying a candidate’s position on Israel was deeply important to them, compared to 49 percent of Democrats.

However, Trump’s high polling figures contradict the long-held belief that Republican voters place a high degree of importance on a candidate’s position on Israel.

Moreover, it suggests that were Trump to win the Republican nomination it could well deepen the divide between the Republicans’ traditional pro-Israeli base and ordinary Republican voters.

Reinhardt told FRANCE 24 that Trump would most likely re-evaluate his position by presenting himself as the best person to ensure Israel's future security.

“People believe he’s a great negotiator who doesn’t take no for an answer and that a lot of strength is needed to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” she said.

Date created : 2016-03-21

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