Who will represent Israel at May's AIPAC conference?

Netanyahu unlikely to attend parley, Lieberman may be too controversial.

Lieberman calm down 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Lieberman calm down 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unlikely to make his first Washington trip as premier in time to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference during the first week of May. Though some reports indicated Netanyahu would be coming then, the date was never confirmed. Israeli government sources now say that he will be going to Washington to meet with US President Barack Obama at the end of his policy review, a process that isn't due to be concluded until later in May. Though the conference, which annually gathers thousands of pro-Israel activists and features leading American and Israeli politicians, would have been a fitting time for his inaugural visit, the delays he faced in forming his coalition this spring have set back the transition process and policy planning. If Netanyahu doesn't come to the conference, scheduled for May 3-5, he could still address the gathering from Israel via satellite, as former prime minister Ehud Olmert did. It remains an open question, however, which Israeli political figure would take his place at the event. According to Beit Hanassi, President Shimon Peres has also been invited and could attend whether or not Netanyahu goes, a decision he will be coordinating with the Prime Minister's Office next week. Sources close to AIPAC said it made sense for Peres to come if Netanyahu does not, but declined to comment further on who would be attending the conference. Israeli sources indicated that it was unlikely Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would attend, though then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni came the year Olmert stayed behind in Israel and spoke via video link. They suggested it might be a matter of politics - with Netanyahu not wanting Lieberman to arrive in the US before he does. But others have also pointed to the sensitivities of welcoming the controversial politician into the American Jewish community, suggesting that AIPAC might not want to showcase him as the face of Israel to the new administration and Congress. Several figures in the American Jewish community have acknowledged that US supporters of Israel will have a difficult time deciding how to receive Lieberman, who on the one hand holds the position of Israel's foreign minister and is therefore its chief diplomat, but on the other hand is widely perceived as politically radioactive because of his critical views of Arabs and a Palestinian state. There has been speculation in parts of the Israeli press that Obama himself wanted Netanyahu to hold off on his visit to avoid photo ops with the Israeli leader, but US observers dismissed this idea out of hand. "Obama is looking forward to Bibi coming in early May," said former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk of the reports, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. He stressed that it was "totally inaccurate" to say that the new prime minister was unwelcome in Washington, and chalked the assertion up to Israeli "spin." There have also been suggestions in the Israeli media that Obama is sending a message by hosting Jordan's King Abdullah next week before Netanyahu. Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert with the US Institute of Peace, said the Abdullah visit was simply part of the long-established tradition whereby a new US president packs his first few months in office with meetings with key heads of state. "Anyone who thinks there is a message in the sequencing is either paranoid or unfamiliar with Washington," he said, pointing out that these visits were usually "weeks if not months" in the making and that Israel had only recently formed its new government. Obama is also trying to reach out by visiting capitals abroad, making his inaugural trip south of the US border this week. There have been rumors of a possible trip to Israel sometime this summer, but White House officials denied reports that he was coming in early June and have said it was premature to speculate about his schedule at this point. Herb Keinon and Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.