Amid row over Israel and Iran, White House sidestepping AIPAC summit

AIPAC supports Netanyahu's position on Iran, where he stands in opposition to Obama and his quest for a comprehensive nuclear accord on America's terms.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 2014 AIPAC annual conference (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 2014 AIPAC annual conference
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry are all expected to skip this year’s summit of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The annual policy conference has received all three figures in the past. But this year’s event, from March 1-3, comes at a time when Jerusalem and the administration are at loggerheads: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to address the group, as well as a joint session of Congress during the same visit, on his concerns over the nuclear deal in the making with Tehran.
AIPAC supports the prime minister’s position on Iran, where he stands in opposition to Obama and his quest for a comprehensive nuclear accord on his terms. Obama says world powers have presented Tehran with a proposal that would grant Iran peaceful nuclear power and, eventually, a broader role in the community of nations.
Netanyahu says such a deal will embolden a violent regime and endanger Israel’s existence. He, alongside AIPAC, is to lobby against it being reached.
The White House has not officially announced participation, or lack thereof, in the conference.
The administration may still send an assistant-level figure to speak, or else a less visible cabinet official such as Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, or possibly Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“It is not unusual for neither the president, nor vice president nor secretary of state to attend – presidents usually only attend as candidates,” an AIPAC official told the Post.
Obama addressed the conference in 2012.
“During the [George W.] Bush years, for instance, the [White House] chief of staff and national security adviser spoke,” he continued.
The official said that the group has yet to receive a reply to its invitation for a member of the administration to speak.
“We often do not hear who the administration representative will be until right before the conference,” the official said.
Spokesmen for Biden and Kerry said both men expect to be out of town that week.
Michael Oren, formerly ambassador to Washington and a figure widely respected by the Obama administration, warned against its protest of the lobby, which he called a “strategic asset” that “must not be harmed.”
“Should the American government choose to boycott AIPAC, it will essentially choose to boycott its strategic alliance with Israel,” Oren said.
News of the Obama administration’s absence from the conference came amid reports it seeks to actively undermine Netanyahu’s visit, scheduled for two weeks before Israel’s national election and less than a month before a March 31 deadline for negotiators from the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran to reach a political framework agreement in the nuclear talks.
While those reports appear speculative, administration officials have made no secret of their disapproval of Israel’s tactics in its efforts to undermine a “bad deal” with Iran.
Last week, US officials said they were withholding details of the negotiations from their Israeli counterparts because they were “cherry-picking” information to leak to the press.
Obama says tensions over Netanyahu’s visit concern his election campaign, more so than policy disagreements. But speaking with American columnist David Ignatius in Israel, International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz cited more than two years of consistent friction over substantive differences on the Iran file.
“From the very beginning, we made it clear we had reservations about the goal of the negotiations,” Steinitz told The Washington Post.
“We thought the goal should be to get rid of the Iranian nuclear threat, not verify or inspect it.”
In an attempt to force a tougher US stance on Obama’s negotiators with Iran, some members of Congress, encouraged by Netanyahu, have considered passing a bill that would trigger sanctions against Iran should negotiations fail. AIPAC supports the bill, which Obama has threatened to veto if it reaches his desk.