It is still more than a week away, but AIPAC’s annual policy conference is already creating a buzz in the political world. Every year organizers promise this will be the biggest pro-Israel gathering ever, but this time around the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has really outdone itself, with 13,000 participants expected to take part at the three-day parley opening on March 4. Headlining the event will be President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel’s president Shimon Peres and the Republican presidential candidates, not to mention congressional leaders and just about anyone who has anything to do with Israel, politics and policy.
But with success come a few headaches.
First, for Republican candidates. The AIPAC conference is taking place just before Super Tuesday on March 6, when ten states hold primary elections. So what is a candidate to do? Fly back to Washington and give up valuable campaigning time in the voting states? Or perhaps skip the AIPAC conference and focus on the voters? It is a tough decision that all three leading candidates (Ron Paul does not seem to be relevant for the AIPAC crowd) need to make. Speaking at the conference can make some political sense, since it is a great venue to show off pro-Israel credentials and to deliver some punches at the Obama administration. On the other hand, staying on the ground in the states that are voting the next day could be a sounder decision, given the high stakes involved. Newt Gingrich already decided to make the trip to Washington. No word yet from Romney and Santorum.
But even before any of the candidates RSVP’d, the idea of Republican presidential hopefuls speaking at the AIPAC conference is causing some unease on the Democratic side. Informed sources said Democrats are now worried that three Republicans will get a chance to bash Obama in front of the pro-Israel crowd while only one Democrat — the President himself — will be there to respond. AIPAC has yet to list any of the Republican candidates on its schedule for the conference.
In 2008 AIPAC invited three candidates to speak: John McCain, who had already clinched the Republican nomination and both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who had just thrown in the towel in her bid to win the Democratic ticket. In 2004, however, President George W. Bush spoke alone and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry did not address the conference.
Beyond the political maneuvering, the unprecedented number of participants also poses a pretty big logistical problem: How do you sit 13,000 people for dinner in one place? The AIPAC gala dinner, usually held on the second evening of the conference, has long become a must-attend event for all Washington political movers and shakers, with more than half of Congress showing up each year alongside ambassadors, lobbyists and pundits. This year, due to the large turnout, the gala dinner will be take place without a dinner. Instead, before entering the hall to hear the keynote address, guests will be divided into smaller cocktail parties where politicians can mingle with their top donors for a give and take that is, after all, what this conference is all about.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.