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With Obama In Cuba, Netanyahu May Skip AIPAC Conference

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 29/02/2016 Jessica Schulberg

WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may skip a trip to Washington to speak at an annual pro-Israel policy conference that coincides this year with President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba.

Earlier this month, the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom  reported that Netanyahu planned to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, scheduled for March 20-22. (Some critics refer to Israel Hayom as “Bibiton” -- a combination of Netanyahu’s nickname, "Bibi," and the Israel word for newspaper -- for its purported ties to the prime minister.)

But as of Monday, AIPAC’s website does not list Netanyahu as a confirmed speaker, and the Jerusalem Post noted that he has not yet officially announced whether he will attend the conference. Galia Nurko, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in the U.S., declined to comment on Netanyahu’s travel plans, and an AIPAC spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

When AIPAC announced dates for this year’s conference, observers quickly noted that it overlapped with Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba, making a meeting between Netanyahu and Obama unlikely. Israeli prime ministers typically make a point to attend the conference, which garners a crowd of over 10,000 people and serves as the staging ground for lawmakers to introduce legislation related to Israel and its security. If Netanyahu does not attend in person, he'll likely address the AIPAC crowd through a live video conference, as he did in 2009 and in 2013.

Obama regularly attended the AIPAC conferences during the first half of his presidency, but has sent top White House officials in his place over the past several years. White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, the White House's representative last year, raised eyebrows when he forcefully stated that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people "must end." 

Obama and Netanyahu assumed office months apart in 2009 and clashed from the beginning over Obama’s “diplomacy first” policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, as well as Netanyahu’s unwillingness to freeze settlement construction. The relationship hit an all-time low around the time of last year’s AIPAC conference, when Netanyahu used the trip to Washington to urge U.S. lawmakers to scuttle the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran.

Obama did not invite Netanyahu to the White House during that trip, and the two leaders didn't meet in person until November , after the nuclear agreement had passed through Congress.

AIPAC is officially nonpartisan, but its list of supporters has become increasingly conservative. The organization launched a multi-million dollar effort to defeat the nuclear agreement with Iran, a key Obama administration foreign policy initiative, and resists criticizing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

As of Monday, there were no Democrats from the Senate listed as confirmed speakers at the conference next month.

H/T  Laura Goldman

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