Obama, Bibi absent from policy-heavy AIPAC gathering
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Next week’s annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington may be as notable for what — and who — is missing as what is planned.
For the first time in at least seven years, neither the U.S. president nor the Israeli prime minister will attend. In addition, for the second year in a row, no mention of the Palestinians, negative or positive, appears on the conference’s legislative agenda.
Instead, the conference will focus on Congress enacting legislation that would designate Israel a “major strategic ally” of the United States — a relationship not enjoyed by any other nation — and on facilitating a U.S. green light should Israel decide to strike Iran.
The conference runs March 3 to 5, ending with the annual AIPAC lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill.
An official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity said the thinking behind this year’s theme is the twin urgencies of what appears to be an accelerated Iranian nuclear program and turbulence in Syria and Egypt. The official also said AIPAC remains as committed as ever to advancing the two-state solution.
Both emphases dovetail with recent signals from the Israeli government that talks with the Palestinians are not going anywhere soon, and that Iran is the largest threat looming in the region.
The absence of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be due to external circumstances more than anything else.
Obama will be visiting Israel just two weeks after the conference — his first visit as president — obviating the need for him to deliver another Israel policy speech at AIPAC. In his stead, the administration is sending Vice President Joe Biden, who will address the conference on March 4. The only AIPAC conference Obama has missed since 2006 was in 2010, when he was overseas.
For his part, Netanyahu is still trying to cobble together a coalition government following Israel’s Jan. 22 elections. He will deliver a video message, and Ehud Barak, Israel’s outgoing defense minister, will address the conference in person.
Despite the absences, AIPAC expects 13,000 activists, including 2,000 students, to attend, a number commensurate with last year’s record-breaker.
Part of what motivates the push to name Israel a major strategic ally, the AIPAC official interviewed said, is an effort to maintain defense assistance funding, averaging more than $3 billion annually, at a time when both parties are seeking ways to drastically cut spending.
Secretary of State John Kerry wrote congressional appropriators last week to warn that across-the-board sequestration cuts due to kick in March 1 will hit Israel funding, among other things.
The overriding consideration in such a designation, however, is Israel’s increasingly close security ties with the United States, in the Middle East and across the globe, where the two nations have collaborated on cybersecurity issues, the AIPAC official said. The major strategic ally legislation will be introduced in the House and Senate in the coming days.
The conference schedule heavily emphasizes the Iranian threat, Middle East turmoil and the perceived need to intensify the U.S.-Israel security alliance. A few sessions deal with the Palestinian issue, some with a pronounced skeptical tone regarding the peace process.
Missing from the legislative agenda is any effort to limit U.S. funding of the Palestinian Authority. AIPAC had pushed such efforts in December, after the U.N. General Assembly vote in which the Palestinians gained boosted recognition as a nonmember state, but they fell by the wayside in part because of mixed signals from the Israeli government.
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