WASHINGTON // The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful lobbying group known for its unwavering support of Israel, kicks off its annual conference here today amid high tensions stemming from a US-Israel dispute over settlement construction in East Jerusalem. The conference, which brings the Israeli prime minister to the US capital, sets up a week of closed-door meetings and public pronouncements that will provide a clearer picture of how deep the tensions run and how long the diplomatic flap will last.
Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Barack Obama, the US president, who recently postponed plans to visit Indonesia and Australia to make a final push for his top domestic priority, healthcare reform. The announcement of their meeting, putting an end to doubts that it would happen, could be a sign that the countries are ready to enter a more conciliatory phase. Mr Netanyahu also will meet Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, whom he called last week to discuss "specific actions that might be taken to improve the atmosphere for progress", according to the state department. During the call, Mr Netanyahu offered his much-anticipated response to the US request that Israel halt its plan to build 1,600 new housing units on land claimed by Palestinians. The details of that response were not disclosed but Mrs Clinton referred to Mr Netanyahu's proposals as "useful and productive".
The construction plans were announced during a visit to Israel this month by Joe Biden, the US vice president, spoiling his efforts to build momentum for the peace process. Mrs Clinton and Mr Netanyahu are scheduled to address the Aipac audience within hours of each other tomorrow, their most public remarks since the dispute began. The words of each leader will be picked apart by analysts and activist looking for more clues as to how each side will proceed. The Israeli prime minister's speech will likely provide a more definitive answer on the controversial settlement project. For Mrs Clinton, meanwhile, the question is whether she will continue to denounce Israeli policies with tough rhetoric or resort to the kind of pro-Israel applause lines that often define political speeches at Aipac conferences.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said he expects Mrs Clinton to do a little of both, giving a speech that is "tough as well as reassuring". Although Mr Miller said the current dispute is not as serious as some previous ones, such as the 1975 fallout over a US demand that Israel partially withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, he noted that Mr Netanyahu's visit to Washington has the makings of gripping political theatre for those who track the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There were signs late last week that the US-Israel relationship was already on the mend. Mrs Clinton seemed to soften her tone when she described the "unshakeable bond" between the United States and Israel during a press conference. But the dispute has not yet been resolved and the way forward for both sides remains unclear. Steven Cook, an expert on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he expects both sides to wind down the tensions and return to the shared goal of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for so-called "proximity talks", or indirect negotiations mediated by the United States.
"I think the ones who are going to be sorely disappointed are folks in the region who are expecting the administration to take some sort of different stance," he said, calling the dispute one of many "periodic bumps in the road" in the US-Israel relationship. Still, he said: "The stakes are high for Netanyahu. I think the stakes are high for the administration as well." The Aipac conference often involves a heavy dose of politics, and it has served in the past as a venue for US officials to criticise Israel.
At the 1989 conference, James Baker, the US secretary of state at the time, bluntly told the audience that it was time for Israel to "lay aside once and for all the unrealistic dream of a Greater Israel". In 2006, Nancy Pelosi, the house speaker, heard scattered boos after she called the Iraq war a failure. Last year, Mr Biden criticised Israel's settlement policies, at one point telling the audience "you are not going to like my saying this".
Aipac, for its part, has deliberately staked out a position in the current dispute by issuing a statement that was sharply critical of the administration's tone. It remains to be seen whether the group will soften its position. The annual conference is a tangible expression of Aipac's power in Washington and influence over top US and Israeli policymakers. This year's guests include Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and now envoy to the Mideast Quartet; Tzipi Livni, the Israeli opposition leader and head of the Kadima Party; and several top US legislators and governors.
This year's conference has been billed as the biggest in Aipac's history, with an estimated 7,500 participants. Conference attendees also will visit Capitol Hill to lobby for Aipac-approved legislation, including measures passed by both houses of Congress that would stiffen sanctions on Iran. Aipac spent nearly US$2.8 million (Dh10.3m) lobbying Congress last year, its highest single-year total of the decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks money in politics.