(MintPress) – More than 13,000 delegates from across the United States and Israel converged at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Conference (AIPAC) in Washington, D.C. this week, the largest assembly of pro-Israel advocates supporting the Jewish state. Vice President Joseph Biden helped open the conference, expressing his unwavering support for Israel, while leaving open the possibility of a full-fledged war with Iran if negotiations and sanctions fail to deter Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
As AIPAC delegates push for increases to Israel’s $3.1 billion in annual military aid, Americans are suffering from $1.2 trillion in automatic sequester cuts over the next 10 years. Unemployment hovers near 8 percent, an estimated 3.5 million remain homeless and 46 million are living in poverty, according the U.S. Census statistics. “These policies are making the U.S. less safe, we need that $3.1 billion here at home,” said Alli McCracken, a national CODEPINK coordinator in a statement to Mint Press News.
Pro-peace demonstrators assembled outside the D.C. Convention Center this past weekend to oppose hawkish AIPAC policies which have pushed the U.S. to the brink of war with Iran and have derailed an immediate hope of a two-state solution to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Activists are calling for negotiations with Iran and a new relationship with Israel, based upon a peace settlement with Palestinian leadership.
“We wanted to get a message out that AIPAC has an extremist agenda that does not represent the whole of the Jewish people,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace to Mint Press News. Jewish Voice for Peace members are among the protesters opposing the singular, hawkish message promoted by AIPAC.
AIPAC policy conference
“Under this administration, we’ve held the most regular and largest-ever joint military exercises. We’ve invested $275 million in Iron Dome, including $70 million that the president directed to be spent last year on an urgent basis — to increase the production of Iron Dome batteries and interceptors,” said Vice President Joe Biden in front of a filled convention center Monday. Iron Dome is a missile defense system used by Israel.
Attending the AIPAC conference has become a rite of passage for politicians, including the president and members of his cabinet.
Founded in 1990, AIPAC maintains an operating budget of $67 million and has a significant lobbying reach, despite not being officially registered as a 501(c)(4) lobbying group with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan political watchdog organization, reports that pro-Israel interest groups led by AIPAC have contributed nearly $56.8 million in individual, group and soft money donations to federal candidates and party committees since 1990.
Between the 2000 and the 2004 elections, 50 members of AIPAC’s board donated an average of $72,000 each to campaigns and political action committees. The return on the investment has been substantial.
Vice President Joseph Biden boasted President Obama’s strong support for Israel when speaking to the standing-room-only crowd. “President Obama last year requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel — the most in history.”
As the crowd erupted in applause with each statement praising the U.S Israel relationship, other Jewish-American groups remain dissatisfied with the hawkish, singular message that AIPAC promotes.
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a group striving for social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law has made clear that the policies presented by AIPAC do not represent the views of all Jewish Americans.
The group, representing roughly 125,000 members, has bought ad space in 100 of the busiest Metro stations in Washington D.C. to promote a pro-peace message. The ads were unveiled March 3 to coincide with the start of the AIPAC policy conference. The posters showcase the faces of Jewish Americans with text reading, “AIPAC does not speak for me. Most Jewish Americans are pro-peace. AIPAC is not.”
“AIPAC is the NRA of the foreign policy lobbies. It is doing an enormous amount of damage to the U.S., to Israelis and Palestinians,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson.
On the issue of Iran, AIPAC lobbying has been a driving force behind sanctions that have hurt the Iranian civilian population, the majority of whom have no connection to the government. What is more troubling for human rights advocates is the effect that sanctions are having on the flow of medicine, food and other essential goods required by the Iranian civilian population.
“We have left Iran more isolated than ever. When we came to office, as you remember — not because of the last administration, just a reality — Iran was on the ascendency in the region. It is no longer on the ascendency,” Biden said.
U.S.-led sanctions pushed by AIPAC and other hawkish groups have crippled Tehran, but have also hurt Iran’s 75 million civilians. The Iranian rial has lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar since 2011. Unemployment is reportedly much higher than the government’s 12 percent figure, especially for citizens under the age of 35.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said earlier this month that he is ready to negotiate in direct talks with the United States “if the pressure stops.” Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
“They [Iran] can meet their obligations and give the international community ironclad confidence in the peaceful nature of their program, or they can continue down the path they’re on to further isolate and mounting pressure of the world,” Biden said, hinting at the possibility of war.
Protesting the conference
CodePink, a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement, has been at the forefront of protests, organizing Occupy AIPAC demonstrations outside the convention center. CodePink claims, “AIPAC Wants War with Iran Americans Don’t.”
Protesters also decried the proliferation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, all of which are illegal under international law. Individuals wearing cardboard structures resembling Jewish settlements populated the sidewalk outside the convention center.
“Sunday we protested from sunrise to sunset. We were outside doing street theater
On the one hand we wanted to engage students who don’t know too much about the issue but are paid by AIPAC to attend the conference,” McCracken said.
AIPAC pays for students’ airfare and accommodations, a substantial effort designed to build a new generation of pro-Israel advocates. McCracken estimates that 200 to 300 demonstrators were on hand to reach engage conference attendees and offer a warning against AIPAC policies.
“The status quo in terms of our foreign policy in the Middle East is not sustainable and is actually dangerous. It comes down to AIPAC’s stranglehold on our politicians with campaign contributions,” added McCracken.
Roving activists dressed like Israeli soldiers patrolled mock checkpoints, questioning passersby on their religion. The IDF maintains dozens of checkpoints throughout the West Bank, restricting the free movement of Palestinian citizens.