The 2016 presidential campaign will make a stop at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington next week. Front runners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will address an expected 18,000 attendees at the pro-Israel advocacy organization’s annual event.
The conference, March 20-22 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Verizon Center, comes after AIPAC’s defeat in its bid to stop passage of the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by the United States and five other world powers. Iran will still be on the agenda, with sessions that discuss its compliance with the deal and likelihood of it continuing to develop a nuclear weapon.
This will be Clinton’s fourth address to the conference. She spoke twice when she was a senator and more recently when she was secretary of state. Trump has not addressed an AIPAC conference, but in December he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition. During his appearance he described himself as “a negotiator like you folks,” and insisted he would be able to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
All Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been invited to speak, said an AIPAC source, who would only speak on background. This is key in seeing where a potential president believes the U.S.-Israel relationship stands, the source said.
Iran was the key issue during the last two conferences. Both featured addresses from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly condemned any agreement between the United States and Iran.
Netanyahu had planned to speak at this year’s conference in conjunction with a scheduled visit to the White House. Last week, he canceled his visit to Washington, and will instead speak via satellite.
Netanyahu said his office determined that he would not be able to meet with Obama ahead of the president’s trip to Cuba on March 21. But U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price disputed this rationale, saying that the White House had offered to arrange a meeting between the two leaders on March 18.
Other Israeli speakers include Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Knesset Member Ofer Shelah and former Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor.
Other topics to be discussed will be U.S. security assistance to Israel; the two countries are negotiating an increased defense aid package beginning in 2018. The potential for bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians is also on the conference agenda.
AIPAC’s actions, particularly working with Republicans and Congress to oppose President Barack Obama and the Iran nuclear deal, revived criticisms that the once bipartisan pro-Israel group is now firmly aligned with the GOP.
Last summer AIPAC spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign that was carried out by the group Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. AIPAC also lobbied members of Congress to oppose the deal.
When the Senate voted, all Republicans and four Democrats came out against the nuclear agreement.
Former AIPAC Executive Director Morris Amitay said AIPAC remains a bipartisan organization, but that Obama’s foreign policy has complicated American support for Israel.
“As far as partisan, [the conference] is partisan because we have a Democratic president who’s been the worst president on Israel we’ve ever had.”
“A lot of the senators were under incredible pressure to go with him [Obama],” Amitay said. “It’s not the first big fight that AIPAC or the pro-Israel community has lost.”
Clinton supported the Iran deal, as did U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md), who will also speak at the conference. At press time, they were the only two U.S. politicians scheduled to attend who opposed AIPAC’s position.
Longtime AIPAC member Steve Sheffey of Chicago said he thinks Clinton’s presence is in the spirit of bipartisanship.
He said AIPAC is committing “political malpractice” by punishing Democrats who supported the deal but are otherwise pro-Israel.
“AIPAC’s past work has earned it the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last fall, “but there is a limit to how long voices like mine can be marginalized.”