By Mike Lillis
It's being billed as a forum to "strengthen the bond between the United States and Israel." But when President Obama steps to the podium Sunday morning to address thousands of pro-Israel activists at the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, the elephant in the room will be a topic of recent division: Israel's borders.
Obama ignited a firestorm on Thursday when he called on Israel to use its 1967 boundaries as the launching point for peace negotiations with Palestinian leaders.
The proposal, though not unlike others from presidents past, provoked an immediate outcry from Republican presidential contenders and a host of influential lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including a number of Democrats.
Against that backdrop, lawmakers from both parties will make appearances at the AIPAC conference, which begins Saturday evening.
Obama – who addressed the conference in 2008, but has not done so as president – will speak Sunday morning, along with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) will address the group Sunday afternoon, while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Netanyahu are slated to speak at a dinner Monday night.
Netanyahu is also scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.
A handful of GOP presidential hopefuls will be on hand – though not in an official role – including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza who threw his hat into the presidential ring on Saturday.
Gingrich and Bachmann will be holding private receptions, according to AIPAC spokesman Ari Goldberg. Also hosting events, Goldberg said, will be the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic National Committee, headed by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).
With AIPAC expecting attendance to top 10,000, the lawmakers will be hoping to win over a powerful voting bloc that's also a significant source of campaign cash. But it may be Obama who has the toughest sell ahead of him.
In a prominent address Thursday, the president suggested that Israel – a close U.S. ally and the only true democracy in the Middle East – cede land it won in the Six Day War of 1967 as a basis to relaunch Palestinian peace talks that have been stalled for several years.
"The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” Obama said from the State Department. "The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state."
Netanyahu on Friday soundly rejected Obama's proposal. Appearing alongside Obama in the Oval Office after a lengthy meeting between the two, Netanyahu warned that "a peace based on illusions will crash eventually on the rocks of Middle Eastern reality."
"For there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities. The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines," he said, as Obama gazed intently with a hand under his chin. "It’s not going to happen. Everybody knows it’s not going to happen. And I think it’s time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it’s not going to happen."
A number of lawmakers have echoed those concerns, including Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) – who warned that the 1967 borders were simply "not defensible" – and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who said the move would threaten Israel's security.
"It would undermine Israel’s strategic depth, increasing its vulnerability to both military invasions and the sorts of rocket and missile attacks that Hamas carries out in Gaza," Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday in a statement. "Doubling down on failed policies will not lead to the changes we need. It’s time for the Obama administration to change course.”
Another critic, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), has promised to introduce a resolution rejecting Obama's position on Israel's borderlines.
"This is not only ridiculous, but dangerous," Hatch said this week.
Even before Obama's speech, AIPAC sought to dissuade attendees from heckling any of the speakers, as occurred in 2007 when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was booed for suggesting that the Iraq war had been less than a success. In an email this week to incoming delegates, AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg sought to prevent a repeat of that episode.
"We have always had the perspective that these speakers and guests have been invited into our home and we will treat them with the warmth, deference, respect, and appreciation that anyone would be accorded as such," Rosenberg wrote.
"Therefore, how we conduct ourselves during the conference, individually and collectively, is a matter of great importance. Because we know that you – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – come to this conference with one overriding concern – a stronger U.S.-Israel alliance – we ask that you act and react to every speech, address, and briefing, that will be offered as part of the conference program in only the most positive manner."
The AIPAC conference runs from Sunday through Tuesday.