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Netanyahu Speech Draws Protests, Increased Security

Protesters gather outside the Cannon House Office Building before the Netanyahu speech to Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address to a joint meeting of Congress Tuesday drew protests and ramped up security all over Capitol Hill.

The increased security was visible upon entering the Capitol in the morning, with scores of police officers stationed at each entrance, and a group of them concentrated at the north barricade. U.S. Capitol Police spokeswoman Lt. Kimberly A. Schneider did not say how many officers were on duty, but wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call, “We do have enhanced security operations in place today” given the Netanyahu speech.

In Upper Senate Park Tuesday morning, a few dozen rabbis with Neturei Karta International, a nonprofit Jewish group that opposes the state of Israel, gathered to protest the speech, with nearly the same number of officers in the park on either side of them. On the other side of the Capitol grounds, protesters organizing with CodePink gathered near the Cannon House Office Building.

After the morning rally, the CodePink protesters entered the House buildings, confronting members of Congress and staffers as they made their way to the Capitol through the basement, imploring them to explain why they were attending the speech.

“We’re just appalled that Netanyahu is coming to sabotage very critical, important and positive nuclear talks that are happening. And we don’t think he should be interfering with our president’s negotiations,” CodePink Co-Founder Medea Benjamin said.

Benjamin spotted Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, walking down the hallway between Cannon and Longworth. When Castro said he would not be attending the speech, but was headed to his office, Benjamin surprised the congressman by giving him a hug and exclaiming, “Yay! You’re the greatest!”

The handful of protesters in the hallway were allowed to confront the lawmakers and staffers, as a couple of Capitol Police officers stood by and watched. But the protesters were frustrated with the hundreds of American Israel Public Affairs Committee representatives in the congressional hallways who were attending lobbying meetings on Capitol Hill as part of the group’s policy conference.

“They stop us. The let AIPAC go everywhere they want,” Benjamin said. “AIPAC can go into places that we’re not allowed to go in.” Benjamin described how the protesters were locked out of Speaker John A. Boehener’s Longworth Office, but eventually followed the AIPAC representatives through a side door into the office.

Tensions rose between the AIPAC representatives and CodePink protesters in the Rayburn cafeteria during Netanyahu’s speech as cheers clashed with boos from protesters. One Capitol Police officer threatened to arrest a protester for being disorderly, though no arrests were made, according to Schneider. The protesters complained the AIPAC representatives were not told to quiet down, telling the officer, “Stop taking sides.”

After the speech, the more than a dozen protesters headed down to the Rayburn subway to once again confront lawmakers about attending the speech. Though most of the members of Congress zipped past the protesters, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., stopped to talk to them.

“It is impossible to believe that this was not a political event,” Rangel said. “And the question would have been: Would my absence contribute to the controversy and stop it? No.”

More than a dozen Capitol Police officers stood guard in the subway, and allowed protesters to approach members, though they were blocked from following lawmakers up the escalators to the office buildings.

Protesters are also planning a rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol. According to a press release, the D.C. Metro chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, in conjunction with a coalition of other organizations, is sponsoring the rally to “tell Congress Netanyahu does not speak for us.”

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