Influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC announced over the weekend that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will attend its annual policy conference, which is to be held in Washington during the last week of March. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also expected to attend, but it's not yet clear if U.S. President Donald Trump will address the conference as well.
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The last time AIPAC's conference included a speech by the president of the United States was in 2012, when Barack Obama appeared before the conference in the midst of his re-election year. Obama also spoke before the annual conference in 2011. Ever since 2013, however, the Obama administration had sent other senior representatives to the conference, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who gave a keynote speech at last year's conference, and former Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke at the conference in 2014.
Trump appeared at the AIPAC conference last year, during the Republican primaries, and used the stage to harshly attack Obama, calling him "the worst thing to ever happen to Israel" and accusing him of "treating Israel very, very badly."
Trump's direct attack on Obama was unusual for AIPAC, an organization that tries to use its annual conference to highlight the bipartisan nature of support for Israel among the American public. That goal was especially important for AIPAC following the contentious fight over Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, which created a rift between Israel and large parts of the Democratic Party.
The thousands-strong crowd at the conference seemed to enjoy Trump's statements, which received loud cheers from those in attendance, but the senior leadership of AIPAC took an unusual step by publicly apologizing for the speech. "While we may have policy differences, we deeply respect the office of the president of the United States and our president, Barack Obama," the organization said. "There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that, we are deeply sorry." Right-wing organizations and media outlets supportive of Trump criticized AIPAC for denouncing him.
Last week, during his meeting with Netanyahu, Trump said that he was open to discussing a "one-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if both sides could accept it. This position puts Trump at odds with AIPAC on another front, since the powerful pro-Israel lobby's official position is to support a two-state solution to the conflict. AIPAC recently pushed for a number of pro-Israel resolutions in Congress that included language in support of a two-state solution.
People involved in the Trump campaign, however, were involved in a successful effort last summer to erase any mention of a two-state solution from the platform of the Republican Party – an idea which AIPAC fought against when it first came up in 2012.
Recent history would suggest that AIPAC might settle for the administration's most senior representative at the conference this year being Pence, who has a strong pro-Israel record, yet isn't as controversial or unexpected as Trump. While an appearance by the president is always a proof to the lobby's power and influence, in the case of Trump, it could also be a recipe for controversy and divisiveness, which don't necessarily serve AIPAC's goal of preserving bipartisan support of Israel and reaching out to progressives, millenials and other populations that are a cause for concern within the pro-Israel community.
Unlike Trump, with regards to Netanyahu, the picture seems clearer, and he is expected to attend the conference this year. Last year, Netanyahu turned down an invitation to travel to Washington, and instead sent a recorded speech from his office in Jerusalem.