Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apparently decided he'd rather attend the AIPAC Policy Conference next month than make what his aides had billed as a "historic" visit to Kenya and Uganda.
The announcement didn't come until today, which means his staff has pinned down a White House invitation. The last time he was there, he famously – or infamously – arrogantly lectured the President on live television like an errant schoolboy. New York Jewish Week’s staunchly pro-Israel editor, Gary Rosenblatt, called Netanyahu’s Oval Office display a “hasbarah disaster” that makes him “the Mideast’s Mr. No.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to address the delegates at the conference on March 3. Obama has also been invited to address the gathering but hasn't officially accepted yet, though this being an election year, don't be surprised to see him show up to challenge Republicans efforts to make his support for Israel a wedge issue.
There's no indication yet whether Netanyahu will be meeting with his old pal Newt Gingrich or some of the other Republicans who want Obama's job, but he is certain to spend time with the denizens of Capitol Hill.
In their Oval Office meeting Obama can be expected to want to talk about ways of reviving the comatose peace process and to urge the Israeli prime minister to give sanctions more time to work on Iran.
Bibi will say he is ready for unconditional talks but the Palestinians keep coming up with demands that would be political suicide for him to meet. He'll say he's ready to make sacrifices if the Palestinians are serious about talks but he doesn't believe they are so why give away bargaining chips now.
And then he will to try to shift the conversation to Iran. Obama will repeat his "ironclad" commitment to Israel's security, his determination to prevent Iran from getting the bomb and his willingness to put the military option on the table. To which Netanyahu will say he can't wait forever and the window of opportunity is steadily closing.
The pro-Palestinian OccupyAIPAC is organizing demonstrations outside the Washington Convention Center to protest the pro-Israel lobby's influence and power during the conference. Netanyahu's presence should energize the protesters in Washington and boost the PM's standing back home. For more on the demonstrations see my blog on the topic.
Israeli President Shimon Peres is to be honored by AIPAC for his "unparalleled service to his country."
Ha'aretz's Barak Ravid reported Netanyahu had "personally initiated" the Africa trip when he told leaders of those two countries on visits to Israel late last year that he wanted to visit them in early 2012. His preference for Washington sent the Israeli foreign ministry scurrying to prevent Netanyahu's change of plans from becoming an embarrassing diplomatic incident. It comes at a time of Israel's increasing diplomatic isolation and Palestinian plans to renew their bid for U.N. membership.
A major topic on Netanyahu's agenda was to have been stemming the flow of illegal migration from sub-Sahara Africa and methods for returning what he termed "illegal infiltrators."
Media reports cited by Ha'aretz say Netanyahu would have visited the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, to participate in a memorial service for his brother, Yoni, who was killed commanding the historic Israeli rescue operation there in July 1976.
So far there is no word whether the Africa trip will be rescheduled or simply cancelled.
Netanyahu similarly cancelled a trip to China planned for November 2010 so he could attend a meeting of Jewish organizations in the United States, according to Ha'aretz. It noted, "The Chinese were insulted, and Netanyahu has not subsequently been able to wrest an invitation to Beijing."