WASHINGTON – Donald Trump huddled with Republican officials Monday in an attempt to persuade a skeptical party establishment to embrace his presidential bid, while Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton told a leading pro-Israel organization that Trump was dangerously unqualified to address international conflicts.
Nearly all the presidential candidates were scheduled to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which draws top Jewish leaders from around the world. The event is a traditional stop for U.S. politicians eager to demonstrate their foreign policy credentials.
“We need steady hands,” Clinton, a former secretary of state, told thousands of activists. “Not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who-knows-what on Wednesday because everything’s negotiable.”
Israel’s security, she proclaimed to loud applause, “is nonnegotiable.”
The comments were aimed at Trump, who sparked criticism from Republican allies of the Jewish state last month when he vowed to be “sort of a neutral guy” on Israel. While the U.S. is officially neutral in the Middle East conflict, his statement marked a rhetorical departure from typically strongly pro-Israel U.S. presidential candidates.
Trump planned to details his plans for a peace deal in remarks before the group Monday night.
The billionaire businessman was using a rare day in Washington to try and woo a Republican establishment that’s been reluctant, and in some cases, determined, to stop his rise to the party’s nomination.
Trump met privately with Republican officials including at least two members of Congress who have endorsed him: Reps. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee and Tom Reed of New York.
Protests were planned at many of Trump’s stops, with a group of rabbis planning to boycott his speech before AIPAC.
Trump has a mixed record with pro-Israel Republicans. He earlier refused to make the perennial Republican campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, drawing boos last year from the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Socially liberal Jews object to his controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants, women and Muslims, with some drawing analogies to the European persecution of Jews that eventually led to the Holocaust.
Clinton has a long history in the Middle East, including overseeing as secretary of state the Obama administration’s first attempt to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. Her stance against Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians has been criticized by some in the pro-Israel community.
She renewed promises to provide sophisticated defense technology to Israel and to quickly invite the country’s prime minister to the White House, if elected president. And she offered subtle criticism of the Obama administration, which has had public rifts with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
AIPAC bills itself as nonpartisan and has never endorsed a candidate. But the organization has played a big role in partisan political debates over issues of interest to Israel. Most recently, it worked hard to try and scuttle the Iran nuclear agreement.
Clinton attacked Trump for taking a neutral stance toward Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, in a preview of a possible general election battle between them.
On a day Trump was visiting Washington, Clinton told the AIPAC conference that Trump would undermine Israel’s security by taking an evenhanded approach to negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security and survival,” Clinton told the pro-Israel lobbying group, without mentioning Trump by name. “Anyone who doesn’t understand that has no business being our president.”
Trump, the Republican front-runner, was to address the AIPAC conference later in the day, along with his Republican rivals, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Clinton’s Democratic challenger, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was not appearing at the event.
The former reality TV star, who has struggled to win Republican establishment support, held private talks with a group of Republican lawmakers. In a separate session with the Washington Post editorial board, Trump named some members of his foreign policy team.
The team included Walid Phares, who Trump called a counterterrorism expert, George Papadopoulos, an oil and energy consultant, and Joe Schmitz, a former inspector general at the Department of Defense.
Trump has drawn fire for his position on Middle East peace negotiations. The New York billionaire has described himself as extremely pro-Israel but has said he would take a “neutral” stance in trying to negotiate an elusive peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump’s critics have said he could harm long-standing U.S. support for Israel. Clinton said she would make it a priority if elected to preserve the U.S.-Israeli relationship, ensuring Israel has a qualitative military edge.
Clinton, a former secretary of state, also took aim at Trump’s vow that, if elected, he would deport illegal immigrants and bar Muslims temporarily from entering the United States.
She noted an incident during the 1930s, when the United States initially refused entry to a shipload of Jews trying to escape Nazi tyranny.
“We’ve had dark chapters in our history before,” Clinton said. “We remember the nearly 1,000 Jews aboard the St. Louis who were refused entry in 1939 and sent back to Europe. But America should be better than this. And I believe it is our responsibility to say so.
“If you see bigotry, oppose it, if you see violence, condemn it, if you see a bully, stand up to him,” she said.
Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the New York-based organization representing roughly 1.5 million American Jews, praised Clinton for her command of the issues. He said he hoped Trump had prepared a speech that revealed specific policy goals as well as a coherent philosophy of the U.S. role in the Middle East.
“It’s as complex as neurosurgery,” he said. “I will be listening very carefully to what he says and what he doesn’t say. Can he put forward a very clear set of commitments that will help us understand him?”
Trump was in Washington for closed-door talks with a variety of Republicans organized by his top backer in the capital, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. It represented his most overt bid yet to seek party unity at a time when many establishment Republicans bitterly oppose him.
The meeting, at the law offices of Jones Day, included some Republican lawmakers who have backed him, such as U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina. None of the congressional Republican leadership attended. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attended.
“Donald Trump Is being discounted by the elites as a candidate for office, just like I was in 2010,” Ellmers said in a statement.
Trump also planned a news conference at the hotel he is building at the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Trump’s rise has alarmed establishment Republicans who have tried in vain to stop him. Their best hope of derailing his insurgent candidacy is to stretch the contest out and deny him the 1,237 delegates needed to formally win the party’s presidential nomination.
Trump has 678 delegates to 423 for Cruz and 143 for Kasich, according to the Associated Press.
If Trump does not win the 1,237 delegates, the nominee for the Nov. 8 election would be decided at the party’s convention in Cleveland. Despite the possibility of turmoil at the July 18-21 event, Republican Party Committee Chairman Reince Preibus predicted a “fun” convention.
Priebus, on CNN, shrugged off Trump’s comment last week that riots would break out if he is denied the nomination.
“It’ll be fine, and I guarantee you we’ll have a good time, and it’ll be a fun convention in Cleveland,” Priebus said.