Omar Karmi
The National
May 27, 2011 - 12:00am

As the first of what would be five protesters heckling the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at a banquet in Washington on Monday night was summarily ejected from the Walter E Washington Convention Centre into a balmy night, the chant erupted in a deep baritone, echoing through the massive hall. "Bibi, Bibi, Bibi", the crowd bayed.

For three days this week, the convention centre, an impressive building that occupies three city blocs roughly half-way between the White House and the US Congress, hosted the annual policy conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in the US.

In that time, some 10,000 fervent supporters of Israel, drawn mostly from Jewish communities around the the US, almost managed to shut out the world and be swept up in the comfort of received opinion and unchallenged assertion.

Joining them to hear Mr Netanyahu speak in the bowels of the convention centre on Monday night for what was billed as the biggest kosher dinner in DC were more than 250 members of the US Congress. Support for Israel garners wide cross-party support in the US. That Aipac should succeed in gathering more than two thirds of all US legislators was nevertheless impressive. That each member should have his name read out in a roll call that lasted nearly 25 minutes to the musical theme from the Pirates of the Caribbean was, well, bizarre.

The choice of music did nothing, however, to undermine Aipac's reputation as "an unparalleled force not only in this town, but throughout this country and the world," in the words of Harry Reid, a member of the Democratic Party and the top man in the US Senate, who preceeded Mr Netanyahu at the podium.

Mr Reid's only disagreement that night with his opposite number in the House of Representatives, Republican John Boehner, with whom he is otherwise locked in a desperate battle over the national budget and who also spoke, was over who could outdo the other in their expressions of support for Israel.

(For the record, Mr Reid stands with Israel "always". Mr Boehner's support for Israel was "100 per cent".)

But Aipac delegates were not just wining and dining with their many supporters in Congress. Over two days, Sunday and Monday, they could choose to attend some 80 policy sessions, chaired by various luminaries of the American foreign policy establishment who were largely drawn from the many think-tanks that litter Washington's beltway.

Here speakers and delegates would often preface terms such as the West Bank, settlements and right of return of Palestinian refugees with the qualification "so-called". Israel's rule over East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip was rarely alluded to as a military occupation. Rather it was characterised as necessary self-defence in areas Israel "won" in war.

In one session, dedicated to whether Israel had a partner for peace on the Palestinian side, one delegate suggested that it was time to "revisit" the Oslo Accords and return to a discussion of the "real state for Palestinians, which is Jordan". In another, someone railed against the "undiplomatic and insulting" way Mr Obama had received Mr Netanyahu at the White House on a previous occasion.

Great attention was also paid to detail, as befits a lobbying group that is happy to be viewed as an "unparalleled force". A recent state department press release on the travels of a senior diplomat to Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank was derided by one panelist, Elliot Abrams - himself a former senior US government official and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations - for listing Jerusalem separately from Israel.

"Unacceptable," said Mr Abrams, to an audience that didn't need telling twice.

And should delegates want to complain about such "unacceptable" US behaviour, quick-stop booths were set up outside the session rooms to allow for easy lobbying.

Don't have time to lobby in person the congressman from your district? Just sign your name to a pre-written form, asking the representative in question to either support more money for Israel, more sanctions on Iran or less money for the Palestinian Authority, now in cahoots with everyone's favourite bogeyman, Hamas.

Aipac will take care of the rest.

There were glimpses of perspective. One Israeli journalist, travelling with the Israeli prime minister's delegation, laughed loudly at the thought that "Together, the US and Israel make a more peaceful Middle East", one of several similar such messages displayed on the massive screens hung across one wall of the 230,000 square feet banquet hall.

Another Israeli, Tal Becker, a former member of Israel's negotiating team with the Palestinians, had to remind his audience than when negotiating, one had to think "not only of one's own victory speech, but of the other's."

Overall, however, the absolute, unquestioned support for Israel on display here allowed for no contradiction. Israel and the US, it was agreed in many rounds of mutual back-slapping, were beacons of democracy in the world, on the side of all those who seek liberty and freedom. Ordinary Egyptians, Tunisians, Iranians and Syrians were often cited in this context; Palestinians, never.

"Denial of the Nakba is indefensible," shouted a third heckler, who had strategically placed himself in a section set aside for journalists, as he too was hurriedly expelled, an unwelcome smell wafted away.

If Mr Netanyahu was temporarily flummoxed by the interruption, the thousands chanting his nickname soon reassured him.

"They couldn't do that in Gaza, you know," he quipped. "Thank God for democracy," he added to loud applause.

As well he might. Democracy is a game they play well here.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017