The theme of this year’s annual policy conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was “Israel: Tell the Story.” And it was quite a story that AIPAC wanted to tell.

The conference aimed at imparting to the over 7000 attendees “an intimate understanding of the many ways that Israel is making the world a better place,” with a focus on peacemaking and innovation. According to the AIPAC web site, conference goers will also “meet Israelis who rush to the scene of natural disasters in far away lands because they believe that to save one life is to save the whole world.” No mention was made of the 1400 people killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, Monday, March 22, 2010. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, Monday, March 22, 2010. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Against a backdrop of creative blends of US and Israeli flags and icons, the three-day conference in Washington DC included plenary speeches by former Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom, according to journalist MJ Rosenberg, delegates were warned in advance not to boo or hiss. Workshops varied from self-serving questions such as “Are Settlements An Obstacle to Peace?” and “Is Israel Treated Unfairly in the Press?” to “The Gaza Dilemma” and “Inside Iran.”

Large numbers of young people attended the conference. With more than 900 university students from 370 campuses as well as 397 high school students, many benefiting from scholarships, students made up nearly 17% of the total number of participants.

Standing outside the conference it was clear that AIPAC is reaching out well beyond the Jewish community for support.

The constant flow of buses, with taxpayer-funded police escort, dropped off conference attendees including many African-American delegations. In fact, workshop sessions centered on the emerging alliance with the African American community and how this alliance can be “ignited around the pro-Israel cause.”

The conference also included fear-mongering workshops in Spanish, presumably as an attempt to reach the Latino community, on Iran’s influence in Latin America via its strong ties with Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil, and concerns that this might lead to terrorism, Islamic extremism and anti-American sentiments.

Additional workshops focused on capitalizing on pro-Israel support from the Christian evangelical community, as well as a “new era of military and intelligence cooperation” with India.

However, the scope of most of the workshops was to prepare participants for the lobbying day on Capitol Hill, with the three main requests for Congress. First and foremost, AIPAC was calling for “crippling sanctions on Iran.”’ Noting that it was unlikely for the UN Security Council to pass such a resolution, AIPAC called on the United States “to lead the international community,” a euphemism for unilateral action.

The second request dealt with the current tensions between the US and Israel following the continued announcements of new illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. An AIPAC drafted letter initiated by House majority and minority leaders Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) called on Secretary Clinton to “reaffirm our commitment to the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel” and to solve any disputes “quietly, in trust and confidence, as befits longstanding strategic allies.” Over 50% of the US House of Representatives have signed onto the letter. A similar letter is circulating in the Senate.

Last but certainly not least, AIPAC urged support for continuing US military aid for Israel, which AIPAC refers to as “’security assistance,” by approving President Obama’s request for $3 billion for fiscal year 2011 as part of the 10-year $30 billion package. Time Magazine was unusually candid in its coverage of this request, reporting “the Israeli government has announced plans to replace its aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets with new, American-made F-35 fighters, a major cost that Israel hopes will be substantially borne by American taxpayers.”

That’s the same F-35 that Secretary of Defense Gates was referring to in his testimony before Congress on March 25 when he spoke of “unacceptable delays and cost overruns.” The price tag for the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program has nearly doubled since 2001, recently leading Secretary Gates to replace the program manager and withhold more than $600 million from the lead contractor, Lockheed Martin. It’s no wonder Israel would prefer US taxpayers foot the bill!

Inside the Washington Convention Center, AIPAC was simultaneously calling for the US public to be kept in the dark regarding any disputes with Israel while asking taxpayers to fund 20% of Israel’s defense budget. Outside it was a different story. Activists from CodePink, Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Avaaz, Jewish Voice for Peace and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation kept up a presence during the conference with signs and banners calling for respect for international law and human rights, an end to the siege of Gaza, Israeli apartheid and US taxpayer funding of war crimes.

Using street theatre, we set up a checkpoint to greet the participants, and I, in the role of a Palestinian woman, tried in vain to get through. I pleaded with the sometimes startled conference-goers to help me get to a hospital, but Tighe Barry, playing an IDF soldier at the checkpoint, pushed me away telling the AIPAC supporters, “You can pass. This is a Jewish only road.”

During our presence outside the conference, I got an earful of everything from thoughtful debate to the most vulgar of insults to outright ignorance on the issues: “There is already a settlement freeze!” “Gaza isn’t under siege, Israel is!” “AIPAC has nothing to do with policy!” This last remark was made while standing under the enormous sign reading “AIPAC Policy Conference.”

We were outnumbered roughly 100 to 1, yet the very sight of us literally sent some people over the edge. A few people even resorted to violence, shoving and hitting the activists. During a press conference held outside the Convention Center, we were constantly interrupted, with people shouting and walking in front of the cameras. Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation rightly judged this as a classic example of the AIPAC crowd trying to completely control the debate so that no other voices can be heard.

But there was at least some debate going on inside the conference. Hadar Susskind of the new self-proclaimed pro-Peace pro-Israel lobby J Street was being interviewed by the BBC when Alan Dershowitz, one of the conference’s principal speakers, approached and the two got into a heated debate. As the press gathered around, Dershowitz asked “How can you not agree that Goldstone is a despicable human being?” referring to the well-respect South African judge who lead the UN fact-finding mission investigating the Israeli assault on Gaza. AIPAC security quickly moved in to usher the argument outside the building. A French documentary crew had their credentials revoked after refusing to leave.

The second day of protests outside the conference made use of satire to try to get the message through. CodePink issued a fake press release announcing AIPAC’s support for a settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The phony release was picked up by several news outlets prompting AIPAC to issue a statement refuting the claim, and thereby confirming that they are not in line with US policy on the issue or the majority of US citizens. Some conference participants were then questioning why AIPAC was not supporting a settlement freeze.

Later that morning, “Netanyahu and the Settlements” arrived at the conference. Activists with the global online advocacy group showed up wearing cardboard boxes shaped like settlement housing along with someone in a Netanyahu mask wearing a Caterpillar hardhat chanting, “Build settlements, not peace.” Later that afternoon, nicely dressed activists escorted the conference participants: “Right this way to the Apartheid Conference.”