What will the cancellation of AIPAC’s 2021 conference mean for Israel?

"The cancellation of next years' policy conference is a missed opportunity, especially because of its timing."

The backdrop of the stage at last year’s AIPAC conference in Washington, DC (photo credit: REUTERS)
The backdrop of the stage at last year’s AIPAC conference in Washington, DC
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Since the outbreak of COVID-19, many international events had to cancel or to shift online. The UN General Assembly is the most significant diplomatic gathering in 2020 that is expected to take place remotely. Some conferences in the Jewish world, such as the American Jewish Committee Global Forum, have moved to an online version too. Last week, the American Israel Public Affairs  Committee (AIPAC) was first major pro-Israel event planned for 2021 to be canceled due to the coronavirus.
AIPAC has always been considered the largest pro-Israel gathering, with some 20,000 people in attendance. Israeli prime ministers, former US presidents and vice presidents and hundreds of community leaders and lawmakers from both countries would attend the event in a show of bipartisan support for the Jewish state. The third day of each conference is usually dedicated to meetings with lawmakers and constituents on Capitol Hill, with attendees lobbying for specific policy changes. Without these face-to-face meetings, what effect would the cancellation have?
AIPAC says, though, most of the advocacy work is currently being done online. “Although we were forced to cancel next year’s policy conference, we will continue our robust and extensive efforts to strengthen the US-Israel relationship,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann told The Jerusalem Post. “For instance, this past week, we conducted a virtual national council meeting with over 600 participants, and they virtually lobbied with hundreds of members of Congress on our legislative agenda.”
AIPAC members lobbied on three main issues: for security assistance to Israel, the extension of the Iran arms embargo Senate resolution, and to support the expanding of medical partnerships with Israel based on bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
A person familiar with the decision to cancel next year’s policy conference told the Post that it was impossible to move ahead with the planning of the event, since planning such a conference takes a whole year.
“We’re in a situation that everyone is facing... We realized that because of the uncertainty, we couldn’t make plans for a conference as we expect.” The source added that it is yet to be determined if AIPAC will hold an online event next year. Meanwhile, local advocacy programs are taking place via Zoom.
“The cancellation of next year’s policy conference is a missed opportunity, especially because of its timing – right after the elections, with either four more years of [President Donald] Trump or a new administration,” said Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the US.
Ayalon told the Post that “it could have been an excellent opportunity to strengthen the ties with the new Congress, as well on crucial matters such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The AIPAC Policy Conference is significant for another reason,” he said. “This is the only forum in which Democrats and Republicans are sitting together united for Israel.”
The conference is a major event, but even without it, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said, the organization and its members will have many opportunities to communicate their views to officials.
When asked if the fact that the conference not taking place would affect Israel in the context of upcoming policy moves, such as Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, he said: “There are lots of reasons Israel should not proceed with unilateral annexation: for its Jewish and democratic future, for its relations with the Palestinians, Jordan and the Gulf Arab states; for its security; and for US security interests.
 It will also damage the bipartisan consensus on Israel in the US, which has always opposed unilateral measures. Losing a forum like AIPAC to explain that policy to Israel’s supporters from both parties is not the main reason, but perhaps one more reason they should not proceed with annexation.”