As “sequestration” budget cuts take effect in the United States this week, some 13,000 people affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are descending on Capitol Hill, where they are likely to urge lawmakers to exempt military aid to Israel from across-the-board cuts. To counter the influx of pro-Israel lobbyists attending AIPAC’s annual conference, a much smaller number of people organized by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Code Pink will visit members of Congress with a simple message: If you aren’t saving Head Start, don’t save Iron Dome.
At issue is legislation expected to be introduced this week that would name Israel a “major strategic ally,” of the United States — a designation bereft of actual legal meaning, but powerful in that it could distinguish Israel from all other recipients of foreign aid and thereby spare it the chopping block. Israel receives upwards of $3 billion of American taxpayers’ money every year, more than any other country except Afghanistan.
End the Occupation and CodePink are part of a coalition of groups that organized Expose AIPAC, a series of events, taking place concurrently with the conference, that challenge the Israel lobby’s annual D.C. convergence. A day of workshops on Saturday culminated with a keynote address by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and writer for The Nation, as well as talks by human-rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab and Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy.
The three addressed the sequester issue in a panel discussion after each individual spoke. “There’s talk that AIPAC is going to push very hard to have aid to Israel exempted from sequestration,” Kuttab said. “They are going to try that. And this is one battle where maybe they’ll lose.”
He explained, “Every American, every sector, every organization that is hit with sequestration is going to say, ‘Wait a minute. How come they are exempt?’”
Bennis drew encouragement from what she described as a “shift in the discourse,” around the Israel-Palestine conflict. “It is no longer political suicide to criticize Israel,” she said. Politicians are not quite as beholden to AIPAC as they have believed themselves to be in the past, she added, urging audience members to participate in the lobbying process of Expose AIPAC.
Still, congressional support for coming to Israel’s aid at any cost remains very strong. A bill introduced by Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez, which has earned the nickname the “Backdoor to War” bill, would declare automatic U.S. backing for military action Israel takes against Iran in “self-defense.” What constitutes self-defense is not defined, leaving interpretation open to include pre-emptive strikes against Iran, a possibility that could have dire consequences.
Another bill on the table, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, would widen the scope of existing sanctions, penalize countries that continue to do business with Iran and designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
Bennis reminded Expose AIPAC attendees that legislation introduced by Barbara Lee last month offers a sound alternative to these proposals. Lee’s bill would establish a special envoy to Iran to spearhead diplomatic efforts and rule out the use of military force without congressional authorization.
In addition to lobbying Congress, Expose AIPAC will have a continuous presence outside of the convention center where the conference is taking place. Activists wearing cardboard boxes painted to symbolize illegal settlements will parade around with Israeli prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama in giant-puppet form.
The first rally kicked off Sunday morning, with most demonstrators arriving at around 11 a.m. Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin was there ahead of time with a few others. She was speaking into a microphone when a man suddenly came toward her with his arm raised. He elbowed her in the face and then ran toward the convention center.
“I ran after the guy and I ran to get the police, and I blocked the guy with my body, and I said, ‘You are not going in there, you are going to face assault charges.’” Benjamin explained. “Some of the protesters came and started filming and calling the police.” She said that security officers hired by AIPAC pushed her aside and allowed her assailant to escape into the convention center.
Benjamin said that she has protested the convention for the past four years, and every year she has been attacked.
Given AIPAC’s overwhelming influence in Washington and the demoralizing effects of the backlash, it’s easy to wonder how long the work of organizations like those involved in Expose AIPAC can continue. But when Bennis described a shift in dialogue around the Israel-Palestine conflict, she attributed it to the difficult and all-too-often thankless efforts of activists like Benjamin.
Naiman also insisted that there was reason to believe Expose AIPAC can make a difference, citing a precedent-setting win in 2008 when Congress rejected a bill calling for a total land, sea and air blockade of Iran, in spite of heavy pressure from AIPAC.
“In the peace and justice movement, we’re used to losing — that’s part of our lives,” he said. “It’s good that we’re ready to lose because that’s going to be our experience a lot. But it’s also good not to become so immured to losing that we stop caring about winning. This is an opportunity to win.”
In the cafeteria of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday morning, Benjamin looked prepared to do just that. Activists gathered around a long table with coffee and muffins as Benjamin helped them divide into small groups before setting out to visit their representatives.
“Every one of you stands for 500 of them!” she said, referring to the AIPAC lobbyists that will flood the offices of the same representatives tomorrow. She said so cheerfully — despite, or perhaps because of, the odds.
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