WASHINGTON – The annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will take place in exactly two weeks, and two upcoming election contests are making it difficult for the pro-Israel lobby to recruit leading Israeli and American politicians to speak at the gathering.
The AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. has attracted more than 15,000 participants in recent years, and is usually attended by the most prominent political leaders in both Israel and the United States. But this year, the three-day gathering kicks off on Sunday, March 1 – just one day before Israel’s election and two days before “Super Tuesday,” the most important day in the Democratic Party’s primary calendar.
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At last year’s event, held two weeks before Israel’s April 2019 vote, the leaders of several of the country’s parties spoke, including MK Benny Gantz, head of Kahol Lavan, in what was his first-ever appearance at the conference. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington that week and was slated to speak the following day, but cancelled his speech and flew back to Israel early after rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into central Israel.
This year, it’s unclear whether the leaders of any Israeli parties will attend the conference. Its dates were decided months in advance, long before anyone knew that Israel would hold its third election within a year on Monday, March 2. The leaders of most Israeli parties will most likely prefer to spend Sunday gearing up for Election Day – not flying 12 hours in each direction to address Jewish-American activists who don’t vote in Israel.
During this past weekend, AIPAC released a preliminary list of speakers at this year’s conference. It includes several members of the U.S. Congress, including both Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California. But no Israeli politicians running in the election in two weeks appear on that list.
The list also doesn’t include any of the Democratic candidates for president, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t attend. An official at AIPAC told Haaretz on Sunday that “this is a preliminary and partial list – we are finalizing the major speakers and they will continue to be announced over the next two weeks.”
In terms of timing, the lobby will likely try to fit as many of the conference’s Israeli speakers – who include journalists, commentators and military officers – into the first day (Sunday) so that they will be able to fly back to Israel and vote on Monday. In Israel there is no early or absentee voting, except for diplomats stationed abroad and their families. Any other citizen who wishes to vote has to go to their polling station on Election Day (which is a national holiday.)
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In the American arena, AIPAC’s main challenge will be Super Tuesday, the last day of the lobby’s conference, when more than a dozen states will hold their Democratic primaries and caucuses. The party’s six leading candidates will naturally spend the previous few days crisscrossing those states.
One source of hope for conference organizers is that one of the Super Tuesday states is Virginia, which borders Washington. Perhaps the race for Virginia's delegates, and the fact that AIPAC is affiliated with a large and influential network of political donors, will give some of the candidates an incentive to address the gathering.
When it comes to the Trump administration, AIPAC probably won’t have any trouble lining up high-caliber speakers. In the last three years, Vice President Mike Pence was the administration’s most prominent representative at the annual event. The last time Trump spoke at the AIPAC conference was in 2016, when he was running for president; his speech back then took place in the midst of the Republican presidential primaries. Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, embroiled in a tough contest against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, also spoke at that year’s gathering.
The last time a sitting president spoke at AIPAC was in 2012 when Barack Obama was running for re-election. Trump’s appearance in 2016 created multiple controversies, and ended with AIPAC apologizing to the Obama White House for Trump’s speech: a direct attack on the 44th president’s record regarding Israel.
Trump’s partisan remarks then embarrassed the lobby, which defines itself as a bipartisan organization and likes to highlight its strong contacts on both sides of the political divide in Washington. At present, a more recent controversy is hurting the organization’s bipartisan image: an ad placed by AIPAC on Facebook, which accused “radicals in the Democratic Party” of anti-Semitism.
Last year, several Democratic presidential candidates publicly announced that they would not attend the AIPAC conference. This year, only one has made such a statement: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Sanders and Warren are both very critical of AIPAC, but the other Democratic candidates with significant political experience – Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar – have had a good relationship with the organization over the years. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, the youngest of the candidates and current leader in the national delegate count, visited Israel last year with a delegation of the American Jewish Committee, an organization that shares many policy positions with AIPAC.
Apart from Israeli and American politicians, the lobby has also attracted politicians from other countries to speak in recent years. In 2017 Rwandan President Paul Kagame became the first-ever African head of state to speak at AIPAC’s event. In 2018, Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, addressed the conference. This year, if Israeli and American political leaders stay away, AIPAC could perhaps make headlines with prominent speakers from other countries.