AIPAC's annual policy conference begins Sunday, March 20th. The conference will be the last of President Obama's term and features several Democratic and Republican candidates who seek to replace him. The annual conference is an important indication of AIPAC's political priorities. This year there are three issues that analysts of US-Israel relations should watch closely.
1) Moving past a major loss on the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Last summer, AIPAC lobbied the US Congress to disapprove the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between the P5+1 and Iran on July 14, 2015. The lobbying effort involved about $30 million worth of ad buys, but was unsuccessful. AIPAC's lobbying campaign was strategic in that it did not directly target the White House. However, its position was directly opposed to that of the Obama Administration. The arguments it invoked during the campaign ranged from reasonable (the IRGC could use sanctions relief to buy rockets for Hizbollah) to totally unsubstantiated (the agreement raises the prospects of war). This approach alienated Democrats who understood the JCPOA as the centerpiece of the Obama administration's Middle East legacy. AIPAC's loss has not suffered the kind of "lasting damage" predicted in the Washington Post at the time. However, it showed again that AIPAC - like any Washington lobbying group - is capable of losing.
Now that JCPOA has been implemented, AIPAC has followed the Netanyahu government's lead, accepting it as ground truth and focusing on strict monitoring of violations instead. This policy line allows AIPAC to project toughness on Iran to conservatives while smoothing over ties with liberals whom it alienated during the Iran deal debate. During the policy conference, expect monitoring Iran's violations of the nuclear agreement to be a major theme.
2) Explaining Bibi Netanyahu's Turning Down a White House Invitation - Rather than giving an in-person address as he has done in years past, Israel's Prime Minister will address AIPAC via satellite. Netanyahu had planned to come to Washington but later cancelled his visit citing President Obama's trip to Cuba at the same time. The White House, however, claimed it had offered Netanyahu a meeting with the President but was turned down. Analysts speculate the cancellation may be a result of negotiations over a new defense aid agreement between the US and Israel. Some speculate Netanyahu believes he can get a better deal from the next administration, which is likely true.
For some in Washington, the cancellation represents another example of Prime Minister Netanyahu's disdain for President Obama. However, deliberate spurning is an unlikely motivation given that Netanyahu has come to AIPAC Policy Conference and the US Congress during the Obama presidency to appeal to the US public - including for positions that contradicted US policy. Nonetheless, the cancellation could leave a bad taste in the mouths of more liberal Israel activists who see US-Israel tensions as the Prime Minister's doing.
3) Managing Donald Trump's Address at AIPAC - AIPAC prides itself on bipartisanship. Like him or not, Donald Trump is the Republican presidential front runner, and there is a realistic chance he will be the next President of the United States. Given these conditions, it would be a poor strategic move for AIPAC to deny him a platform to speak. Such a move would involve a high cost to AIPAC's relationship with Trump supporters, Republican Party operatives, and a prospective President Trump.
Nonetheless, AIPAC's invitation has appeared to some as a legitimization of Trump's Islamophobic, intolerant, and racist comments at a conference that highlights shared liberal democratic values between the US and Israel. Even conservative analyst (and Rubio adviser) Max Boot has indicated disapproval of the speech. Trump's speech may harm AIPAC's reputation among liberal and progressive supporters of Israel even after the conference is over.
In addition, Trump's speech is generating friction between AIPAC and leaders in the Jewish community. Student leaders have also expressed concern over the speech. Jewish leaders of conscious are correct to take seriously the fact that AIPAC is giving a political platform to a man who has called for a national registry of religious minorities. AIPAC is obviously not doing so as a matter of deliberate strategy. However, it should also be mindful about how it presents the context of this speech, lest its conference theme of "coming together" be overshadowed by partisan controversy.