Thousands of politically-savvy pro-Israel activists will come to Washington this weekend for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 2017 policy conference.
Despite a tumultuous 2016 conference, in which then-Vice President Joe Biden was booed and an AIPAC official publicly criticized remarks by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, observers say they expect the past to be left in the past during this weekend’s conference.
The presidential campaign is over, said former AIPAC executive director Thomas Dine. “You have to get down to business now and be a part of governing the United States.”
To Dine, that means addressing the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which he said should take precedence over other issues at the conference.
AIPAC drew attention in November when it removed support for the two-state solution from its website’s list of talking points.
AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann later told the Jerusalem Post, “Our position has not changed. …We continue to support a two-state solution.”
But some observers are looking to hear the lobby speak out more vociferously in support of a two-state solution, after President Donald Trump’s remarks at a February press conference with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said on Feb. 15. “I can live with either one.”
The remarks upended decades of American foreign policy supporting a two-state solution. Unlike many other Jewish organizations, most of which criticized the apparent change in policy, AIPAC did not respond to the president’s comments.
J Street, the pro-Israel group to the left of AIPAC, believes that AIPAC needs to explain how it’s going to work with the Trump administration, given the administration’s shift in Mideast policy, said spokesman Logan Bayroff.
“Are the folks at AIPAC going to stand behind the two-state solution after seeing this strange regression from the administration?” he said.
AIPAC has a complicated history with Trump. One of the most dramatic moments of last year’s conference came when AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus made an unscheduled statement that apologized for the remarks of Trump, one of several presidential candidates to speak.
“With President Obama in his final year — yay!” Trump said to cheers. He also called then-President Barack Obama “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.”
The remarks crossed a line for AIPAC leadership.
“We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage,” said Pinkus.
Morris Amitay, a former AIPAC executive director, said the lobbying group erred in having Pinkus apologize.
“I think [the apology] was clumsy attempt to show Democrats that AIPAC wasn’t slipping to the right, and I don’t think it was necessary,” he said.
AIPAC prides itself on being bipartisan, but the appearance of slipping to the right was visible last year. In contrast to the applause it gave Trump, the crowd of 18,000 booed Biden for criticizing Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy for The Jewish Federations of North America, said he “absolutely believes” AIPAC has maintained its bipartisan nature.
“There are very few advocacy organizations in Washington who could get [this level of] bipartisan leadership to appear at one conference,” said Daroff, referring to this year’s speakers, who include House Speaker Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.).
Daroff said one of the issues he wants to see AIPAC address is “Iranian misbehavior” as it relates to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal.
The JCPOA was particularly contentious in the Jewish community, and it became increasingly polarized as Democrats came out largely in favor, and Republicans opposed to the deal.
AIPAC opposed the JCPOA on the grounds it would not eliminate Iran’s path to nuclear weapons or dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
The lobbying group’s conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center comes two weeks after media outlets reported an AIPAC affiliate, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, paid $60,000 for advertisements with the Center for Security Policy.
CSP and its director Frank Gaffney have drawn criticism for making generalizations about Muslims and Islam. The $60,000 was a part of a $20 million budget to advocate for Congress to nullify the Iran nuclear deal, according to an AIPAC official.
Trump has repeatedly criticized the Iran deal, calling it “disastrous” and threatening to trash it, a move experts say is not feasible given the number of international powers involved in its creation.
Representing the new administration this weekend at AIPAC will be Vice President Michael Pence.
Those interviewed for this story generally thought that candidate Trump’s AIPAC 2016 remarks will not haunt the vice president.
Daroff said: “I think it is a nonissue. I think that each conference is its own event.”
—JTA News & Features contributed reporting to this story.