When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to town next month, he’ll meet with President Obama at the White House for the first time since the right-wing Israeli led a failed campaign to block the liberal Democrat’s nuclear deal with Iran. During the course of his long, no-holds-barred fight against diplomacy with Iran, Netanyahu took a stand with congressional Republicans against the White House, attracting minimal Democratic support for his position against Obama’s signal foreign policy achievement. Three years ago, Netanyahu all but endorsed Obama’s opponent in the presidential race, Mitt Romney. And Netanyahu’s own behavior at home—most notably the modus operandi of his successful reelection bid this year, which included anti-Arab bigotry and a vow to block a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—strained relations further.
So it was altogether fitting that Netanyahu, during his swing through Washington, would be given an award by the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think tank close to the Republican Party that never strays too far from Netanyahu’s ideological home turf. Though Israel—and its most influential DC lobby group, AIPAC—has traditionally garnered bipartisan support, neoconservatives don’t give a whit about it; they have long thought Democrats, and especially today’s Democrats, were insufficiently hawkish to give Israel the kind of support it needed in the Middle East. And Netanyahu has more than made clear where his allegiances lay on the American political spectrum: with the Republicans, and especially the neoconservatives among them.
It was jarring, then, to see the news yesterday that Netanyahu would be invited to address the liberal Washington think tank Center for American Progress, a group that serves the purpose of fueling the Democratic Party with progressive policies and ideas. The Israeli embassy approached CAP, the Huffington Post reported (in an article in which I was quoted), and asked for an opportunity to speak. “He’s looking for that progressive validation,” a former CAP staffer told the news website, “and they’re basically validating a guy who race-baited during his election and has disavowed the two-state solution.”
Jarring, but not ultimately surprising—especially not to me. An important disclosure: I worked at CAP for more than a year, from 2011 through much of 2012, writing for the site ThinkProgress, mostly on Middle East policy. My stint there was defined by an attack on my and my colleagues’ work by pro-Israel groups; our taking a progressive stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pointing at pro-Israel figures as leading the charge for a war with Iran in Washington had attracted the attention of some of the Israel lobby’s nastiest apparatchiks. Though there was no evidence to back up the charge, we were smeared as anti-Semites. It’s a long story—I suggest reading accounts of the affair by Joshua Holland and Glenn Greenwald—but suffice it to say for our purposes that AIPAC played a significant role in the affair. And CAP’s positions moving forward from the attacks—including but not limited to virtually banishing criticisms of Israel and Netanyahu from our writings and, in at least one case, needlessly censoring a piece after publication—were guided by how to return to AIPAC’s good graces, often in coordination with AIPAC itself.