Five things to watch as AIPAC conference kicks off

The annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference is kicking off Sunday as U.S. politics surrounding Israel increasingly becomes a wedge issue.

A slate of high-profile figures from both parties, as well as top Israeli officials, will grace the stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center over three days.

Among those attending will be Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting US critical facilities with destructive malware Trump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel MORE, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerTrump announces opening of relations between Sudan and Israel Five takeaways on Iran, Russia election interference Pelosi calls Iran 'bad actor' but not equivalent to Russia on election interference MORE (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (D-Calif.) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The conference could see a number of issues come to a head, including controversies over Netanyahu’s re-election efforts; comments by freshmen Democratic Muslim lawmakers; AIPAC's approval of Trump policies in the Mideast, and efforts by 2020 Democrats to distance themselves from the event.

Here are five things to watch at the conference.

Do Democrats address the Omar controversy?

The conference is happening with the controversy sparked by comments from Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarProgressive lawmakers call for United Nations probe into DHS 'human rights abuses' Ocasio-Cortez hits Trump for 'disrespect' over calling her AOC during debates Trump says he doesn't actually want Whitmer, Biden and Obama to be locked up despite chants MORE (D-Minn.) still fresh in people’s minds.

In February, Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, tweeted that “it's all about the Benjamins baby” in reference to lawmaker support for Israel. In a subsequent tweet, Omar directly called out AIPAC, suggesting it was the lobbying group responsible for U.S. support of Israel.


The initial tweet was widely condemned as anti-Semitic by leaders across the political spectrum.

The backlash against Omar, though, sparked its own pushback, with progressives leaping to her defense. They argued that while inartfully phrased, Omar’s larger point about AIPAC having an outsized influence on U.S. politics was valid.

Just as the firestorm over the tweet appeared to be subsiding, Omar again prompted charges of anti-Semitism by saying at an event that she wanted “to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

The fallout over those comments led to a rift in the Democratic Party about how to respond, eventually leading to a vote on a resolution that broadly condemned hate in all forms.

Several of the attendees at the AIPAC conference have called out Omar in the past month, including Democratic lawmakers such as Reps. Max RoseMax RoseCentrist Democrats got their COVID bill, now they want a vote Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE (N.Y.) and Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Matt Gaetz, Roger Stone back far-right activist Laura Loomer in congressional bid MORE (Fla.).

As such, spectators will be watching closely to see what, if anything, lawmakers say about the controversy during their panels and speeches.


What do Trump officials say about Democrats?

On the flip side are questions about what Trump administration officials will say about the Omar controversy.

Trump and his deputies have seized on Omar’s comments to argue the Democratic Party is anti-Semitic and that Jewish people are leaving it in a “Jexodus,” looking to turn the tables on those who have accused the president of anti-Semitism after he said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Trump renewed his criticism of Democrats as “anti-Jewish” on Friday after several Democrats running for president in 2020 announced they would not attend this year’s AIPAC conference amid calls for a boycott by liberal group MoveOn.

“I don’t know what’s happened to them, but they are totally anti-Israel,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. “Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.”

Meanwhile, Pompeo, who is scheduled to speak at AIPAC, called Omar’s comments “just abhorrent” in an interview in Jerusalem on Thursday with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

A Friday news release from the State Department said his AIPAC speech Monday will focus on “fighting anti-Semitism at home and abroad.”

In February, Pence, also a featured speaker at the conference, called Omar’s tweets “a disgrace” and said her subsequent apology “was inadequate.”


How will Trump officials play up his policies?

Trump isn’t scheduled to speak, but he’ll be looming large with so many of his top officials on the bill.

Since last year’s conference, Trump has made several moves designed to burnish a pro-Israel image.

In May, Trump announced he was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, which AIPAC lobbied hard against when the Obama administration inked the agreement in 2015.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem officially opened in May after Trump recognized the city as Israel’s capital in 2017.

And just this Thursday, Trump announced the United States would recognize Israel’s control over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during a 1967 war and annexed it in 1981, but the international community did not recognize the annexation as legitimate.

Administration officials are sure to use those moves as applause lines during their speeches, while panelists and other attendees could use them as fodder as they chat about U.S. policy in the Middle East.


Do Trump officials boost Netanyahu?

Netanyahu, who has been indicted on fraud and bribery charges, is in a fight for his political life as Israel’s April 9 elections approach.

The prime minister has leaned on his close relationship with Trump during his re-election campaign, using a picture of the two shaking hands in campaign posters.

The Trump administration, in turn, has been accused of trying to help Netanyahu win.

The Golan Heights announcement was seen as a boost to Netanyahu’s chances, though Trump denied that’s why he did it.

“No, I wouldn’t even know about that,” Trump told Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo in an interview that aired Friday.

“I hear he’s doing OK, I don’t know if he’s doing great, but I hear he’s doing OK,” Trump added of Netanyahu. “But I would imagine the other side, whoever is against him, is also in favor of what I just did.”

Pompeo was also dogged by questions about whether he was trying to help Netanyahu with this week’s trip to Israel coming as close to the elections as it did.

While he’s Washington, Netanyahu will also be visiting Trump at the White House, another data point critics are using to say Trump is helping the prime minister campaign.

With all that activity in the background, AIPAC conference watchers will be listening for how administration officials talk about Netanyahu in their speeches.


What’s the reaction on the conference floor?

It’s not just the speeches that will be closely watched. With AIPAC, Israel and anti-Semitism all becoming headline news recently, how those in the audience receive certain speakers and what the chatter is throughout the convention center is sure to garner plenty of attention.

Pelosi, for example, was booed by some in the crowd when she spoke at the conference in 2007 and criticized the Iraq War. Observers will be looking to see the reaction to her speech this year, as well as thoughts on how she has handled the Omar controversy.

The boycott by several 2020 Democrats has also put conference attendee’s thoughts on the 2020 presidential election in the spotlight even though it’s technically on off-year.

As of Friday afternoon, nine Democratic candidates said they were not attending. A 10th, former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (Md.), is also not attending but said it was only due to a scheduling conflict and that he looks forward to attending next year.

With the Democratic boycott growing, observers will watch for attendee’s thoughts on the 2020 field and what they think it means for future of Israel policies in the Democratic Party.


Read more from The Hill: 

Omar controversies shadow Dems at AIPAC