Occupy AIPAC Confronts Bibi Netanyahu's Insane Push for War with Iran

Palestinian flags flew high while Arabic music blared and young Palestinian women wearing kaffiyeh scarves danced in a circle. Mock settlements were lined up in front of a group of activists, while the anti-war group CodePink gathered on the steps of the Washington Convention Center holding signs that spelled out “No US Tax $ For Israel.” Activists chanted “Free, free Palestine,” and signs held high decried the assassinations of Iranian scientists and a potential U.S. or Israeli war on Iran. A large banner was unfurled in the back that read, “Occupy AIPAC.”

This was the scene on March 4, Occupy AIPAC's main day of action. Hundreds of activists had begun to arrive the day before for the counter-summit, organized by CodePink, challenging the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the center of gravity of the Israel lobby.

“I’m back in DC, here with Occupy AIPAC...because I think it’s really important we put pressure on AIPAC to let them know that we don’t agree with their buying off of Congress for the state of Israel,” Ann Wright, a former U.S. colonel who resigned from her State Department post in protest of the Iraq war in 2003, told AlterNet.

AIPAC's annual conference kicked off that day, and the hundreds of anti-AIPAC demonstrators massed outside the Washington Convention Center were determined to have their message heard. Police officers and private security kept the convention center closed to most of the protesters. Still, a number of disruptions of the AIPAC conference occurred as a small number of activists who managed to get inside “mic checked” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, and interrupted a session about “defending Israel” on college campuses.

An impassioned speech by Ashira Hakan, an activist from Palestine who had just arrived in DC, tried to bring the reality of occupied Palestine home to the AIPAC conference. She explained how Mustafa Tamimi, a 28-year-old Palestinian, was killed by Israeli soldiers in the village of Nabi Saleh, and how Palestinian children were terrorized by night raids. “Look at the faces of the children,” she implored, referencing YouTube videos of the raids.

Earlier, Occupy AIPAC protesters gathered on both sides of the street where President Obama's motorcade was due to emerge. When the motorcade passed, protesters chanted and held up huge “No War on Iran” signs.

“AIPAC is pushing Congress, and trying to push the administration, toward war with Iran,” explained Robert Naiman, policy director for Just Foreign Policy. “The thing we want to get across is that it's time for a change in U.S. policy towards the Middle East away from war and towards resolving problems through diplomacy.”

But a much different message about U.S. policy in the Middle East was being conveyed inside the halls of the convention center. The rhetoric emanating from AIPAC, whose annual conference draws thousands of activists and hundreds of elected officials from across the political spectrum, was decidedly hawkish, and it was all about Iran. Iran war fever officially washed over DC last weekend.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech on March 5 captured the hysterical tone of the Israel lobby's confab. To thunderous applause, Netanyahu, the head of the right-wing Likud Party, delivered remarks to a room that included more than half the members of Congress. The American-educated leader followed a familiar script.

“A nuclear-armed Iran must be stopped,” Netanyahu warned. “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer,” he said, hinting at future military action against Iran.

Netanyahu went on to invoke the specter of the Holocaust, and the story behind the Jewish holiday of Purim. “In synagogues throughout the world, the Jewish people will celebrate the festival of Purim,” he said. “We will read how some 2,500 years ago, a Persian anti-Semite tried to annihilate the Jewish people.” The clear message was that the Iranian regime was comparable to Nazi Germany and Haman, the antagonist in the Purim story who plotted to wipe out the Jews hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, took AIPAC's message on Iran to heart. McConnell's speech contained an explicit call for military action in the future. “If Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program,” McConnell said.

Young delegates in suits from universities around the country, whose trips to DC were heavily subsidized by AIPAC, also took the message to heart. (I was denied press credentials by AIPAC, but managed to interview some delegates as they walked outside the convention center.) “Someone should bomb them,” said Dan Slyper, a young AIPAC delegate. “The US, Israel, or Saudi Arabia.” Another young delegate, when asked his thoughts on Iran, quipped, “They should be obliterated.”

The easy talk of war that Netanyahu, McConnell and the delegates engaged in is meant to push President Obama into a box that would necessitate future military action against Iran. That same aim, as Just Foreign Policy's Naiman has written, was behind a Senate and House resolution that “seeks to establish as U.S. policy that a nuclear weapons capability” (an ill-defined term) would be cause for U.S. military action. The results, in the form of Obama's address to AIPAC, were mixed.

“We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically,” President Obama told AIPAC Sunday. “Already, there is too much loose talk of war.” But, as the Associated Press noted, Obama's message was also that the “United States will not hesitate to attack Iran with military force to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”

Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council, gave a largely positive assessment of Obama's speech in an interview with AlterNet. “He did not cave. He stood firm. He said we need to invest in the diplomatic track.”

Still, Abdi said Obama's threats of military action in the future are “the politically expedient position to take, and that a lot of people in this town do believe that we can't take military options off the table. My problem with that, is that the war threats become self-fulfilling, and that every time we issue a red line, it's a signal to Iran that we're more interested in war and imposed regime change, rather than the issue we claim to be concerned with, which is the nuclear program...So I think it confuses things, it's dangerous.”

Earlier on, Abdi joined a press conference along with retired US Navy Commander Leah Bolger, a member of Veterans for Peace, to speak out against Israel's threats toward Iran. “I don't understand why there is no mention made of the hundreds, hundreds of nuclear weapons that Israel has, and nobody is inspecting them, nobody is talking about them,” said Bolger.

All the talk of Iran, though, served another purpose: to take the occupation of Palestine and the consolidation of greater Israel off the agenda. This was part of Netanyahu's goal, as former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy explained in Foreign Policy.

“Focusing on Iran (although not attacking Iran) allows Israel to line up together with the West,” wrote Levy, who argued that due to domestic Israeli politics, Netanyahu ultimately wouldn't attack Iran, despite the threats. “Want a sense of just how well this distraction serves the greater Israel cause? Take a look at [Jeffrey] Goldberg's latest interview with Obama for the Atlantic -- 4,561 words and not one of them mentions the Palestinians or settlements.”

Knocking Palestine off the agenda comes at a time when Israeli settlement expansion continues unabated and plans to expel some 27,000 people from Bedouin communities near a key Israeli settlement move forward.

But Occupy AIPAC activists worked to confront that agenda throughout the counter-summit. While protesting against a war with Iran was the top priority, their disruptions of AIPAC panels inserted the plight of Palestinians into the discourse, at least temporarily. “Don’t bomb Iran; equal rights for Palestinians,” shouted one activist who interrupted Senator Carl Levin, D-Michigan, on March 6. And when Liza Behrendt of the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace disrupted a panel on “securing Israel on campus,” she criticized Israel lobby groups for stifling dialogue about “freedom for Palestinians” and unfurled a banner that read, “Settlements betray Jewish values.”

March 6 was AIPAC's big lobbying day. Some 14,000 AIPAC delegates will blanket Capitol Hill and push for more congressional members to sign on to resolutions that would, as Robert Wright of the Atlantic wrote, “move America further down the path toward war with Iran.”

Occupy AIPAC planned to protest AIPAC's war push by doing their own lobbying of Congress, and their legislative agenda also touched on Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights.

Still, organizers of Occupy AIPAC recognize they are waging an uphill battle.

“We're seeking to kind of put a cog in the wheel, disrupt business as usual, by trying to get reality inserted in that discussion on the Hill,” said Rae Abileah, a CodePink organizer who was assaulted after she disrupted Netanyahu's speech to Congress last year. “We're in a really dire spot. We don't have any illusions that we're going to shift Congress this weekend.”

More importantly for Abileah is attempting to change “public opinion about the threat of a war with Iran.” But with a corporate media propaganda push that has hyped the threat of Iran, and no end in sight to the Israeli government's war push, that battle for public opinion will also be an uphill fight.

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