Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump praised Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East” and slammed the Iran nuclear deal as “catastrophic,” in remarks to the U.S.’ largest pro-Israel lobbying group on Monday.
“I’m a newcomer to politics, but not to backing the Jewish state,” Trump told the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which all but one U.S. presidential candidate is addressing this week.
Trump’s speech was being especially closely watched, since the bombastic New York billionaire has made several remarks that supporters of Israel have found concerning.
“I didn’t come here tonight to pander to you about Israel. That’s what politicians do. All talk, no action, believe me,” said Trump, who read from a teleprompter rather than deliver his speech off the cuff, as he usual does.
The AIPAC crowd appeared to be largely receptive to Trump’s speech, applauding politely and refraining from major walkouts that some attendees had threatened to carry out.
However, the crowd did burst into laughter when Trump claimed he had studied the Iran nuclear deal “more than anyone else.”
Outside the arena, a group of rabbis and others held a protest, entitled “Come Together Against Hate.”
WATCH: Trump protesters outside AIPAC
Trump has come under criticism by some Israel supporters, not only because of his racist comments about Jews and other minorities, but also because he has said he will be a “neutral” negotiator in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
At a speech last year to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump resorted to several Jewish stereotypes, telling attendees “I’m a negotiator – like you folks” and suggesting that Jews liked to “control” politicians.
Ahead of Trump’s speech Monday, many AIPAC attendees shrugged off those comments.
“It was offensive, but he’s offended everybody, and Jews are not particular in that regard,” David Rider from Newburgh, New York told VOA.
Del Conrad from Anchorage, Alaska also dismissed Trump as his “least favorite Republican,” but said he would vote for him if he is the Republican nominee.
“I don’t like it. But you always know what he’s thinking,” Conrad told VOA. “As opposed to Hillary, who’s lying all the time and you don’t know what she’s thinking.”
Other candidates address AIPAC
Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich also addressed the AIPAC conference Monday.
In his speech, Kasich boasted of his “unwavering” support for the Jewish state, and slammed Palestinians for promoting a “culture of hatred and death.”
Kasich also vowed to lead an international effort to reapply sanctions on Iran if it violates the nuclear deal reached with world powers last year.
Clinton blasts Trump
Earlier in the day, Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, drew long cheers as she denounced the statement by Trump that he would be "neutral" in trying to negotiate a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
She said the U.S. does not need "a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday because everything is negotiable. Well my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable. America can't ever be neutral when it comes to Israel's security."
"Some things are not negotiable. Someone who doesn't understand that has no business being America's president," Clinton said.
The only presidential candidate not to appear at AIPAC was Democrat Bernie Sanders, who cited “campaign schedule” conflicts as the reason he could not attend.
Sanders, the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in U.S. history, has been more critical of Israel than other presidential candidates.
The Vermont senator addressed a crowd Monday in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he delivered the speech he says he would have given to AIPAC.
“Israel is one of America’s closest allies, and we – as a nation – are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but also to its people’s right to live in peace and security,” said Sanders.
But Sanders also called on Israel to end what he called the “economic blockade” on Gaza, where he said there is “too much suffering…to be ignored.”
Sanders also slammed Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which many have said endanger an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.
“Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank,” Sanders said.
Some AIPAC attendees saw Sanders’ absence as a thinly veiled criticism of the pro-Israel lobbying organization, especially when Sanders has repeatedly railed against the power of special interest groups.
For AIPAC attendee Annette Browdy from Forest Hills, New York, Bernie’s absence was a political statement.
"I think it was definitely that his constituency would not have liked him being here. I don't think it's scheduling,” Browdy told VOA.
“I've been reading [about] people supporting him - pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS people - supporting Bernie, which is totally opposite of what AIPAC stands for,” she added.
VOA's Ken Bredemeier contributed to this story