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.
And it was AIPAC, the Huffington Post added, that “applied pressure to CAP to allow Netanyahu to speak.” Let’s be blunt: AIPAC is an organization that, though it gives lip-service to the two-state solution, supports the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s leaning to the right side of the Israeli political spectrum is well known. And though the group can still pick up some Democratic support for its causes—see, for example, Chuck Schumer and three other Senate Democrats’ objections in an otherwise party-line vote on the Iran deal—what’s left of liberal support for AIPAC has been reduced to a thin veneer of bipartisanship, owing no doubt to factors like general liberal disillusionment with Israel and the growth of liberal pro-Israel groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now. That a liberal institution feels the need to kowtow to AIPAC in a climate like this speaks volumes about either how out of touch or how craven it can be.
Of course, Netanyahu’s own politics and policies alone are more than enough to raise questions about the invitation. The problem is lending, as the CAP staffer said, legitimacy to Netanyahu’s views and policies. The Israeli prime minister, for anyone not blinkered by ideology to see, has taken steps to entrench the occupation, with security policies as well as settlement expansion. His opposition to the Iran deal was waged with distortions, ignoring his own security establishment’s assessment that it was a good deal. He waged a war in Gaza against an occupied population where hundreds of civilians were killed, leading the UN to suspect war crimes had been committed. It is those positions, those policies, those acts which would justify denying Netanyahu’s request to speak at a liberal institution; instead, he’s being offered a chance for exactly the validation he seeks.
Still, there is some sense in agreeing to host Netanyahu. For one, he is the head of state of a nominal ally, however noxious he can be and however much he spurns his country’s best ally. No one should be surprised that CAP seriously entertains an offer to speak from any head of state. What’s more, CAP is in a mode now of switching from being Obama’s think tank to being Hillary Clinton’s; the gravitational pull of an election is too great for the think tank’s ideological imperative (progressivism) to outweigh its unstated partisan mission. Clinton continues, in the 2016 race, to stake out at least moderately hawkish positions on the Middle East, either from a political calculation (to distinguish herself from Obama’s overstated reluctance to conflict), a campaign one (Haim Saban, the hawkish Israeli-American businessman is a longtime Clinton and Democratic donor, though notably cool on Obama), or an ideological one (she’s just a hawk). It makes a lot more sense for Clinton’s think tank to invite Netanyahu than it would for Obama’s.
Theories of how the invitation happened aside, there are philosophical and ideological issues at hand. Liberals should have a commitment to the free airing of ideas, and hosting Netanyahu could be justified in this manner. As a scholarly institution, CAP should hold the values that could inspire such a move (however cynically they are applied, with an eye, for instance, back to my colleagues’ and my flap there). But CAP does not need to adhere to these standards: In addition to being a scholarly institution, it is an avowedly ideological one. It’s hard to see how giving a liberal platform to Netanyahu helps advance any progressive cause at all—indeed, considering his policies and positions, Netanyahu’s appearance looks poised to do the opposite: help the right wing. That’s what makes the invitation particularly perplexing.
All that said, the invitation is a done deal. (For whatever it’s worth—and it’s probably not much—a user-generated petition on the progressive group MoveOn’s website aims to compel CAP to disinvite Netanyahu.) The big question now is: What comes next? CAP has an opportunity here to hold Netanyahu accountable. To do so is not only in accord with CAP’s mission as a progressive think tank but mandated by it. A national leader with Netanyahu’s right-wing positions—one who has overseen policies that further entrench the occupation of Palestinian territories, waging needless wars against occupied civilians; trade on racism to shore up political fortunes; and combat American foreign policy priorities with distortions and clownish, bigoted falsehoods—demands it.
According to the Huffington Post, the Q&A with Netanyahu will be conducted by CAP’s head, Neera Tanden. For those of us who worked under her when pressure was brought to bear by right-wing and -leaning pro-Israel groups, Tanden’s place as Netanyahu’s interlocutor doesn’t inspire confidence. But we’ll have to wait and see if she can muster some good questions. If not, Netanyahu’s appearance at the Center For American Progress will be nothing short of a total victory for the Israeli prime minister, a liberal stamp of approval for noxious right-wing policies, and a setback for the changing discourse over Israel in this country. Given all the progress that has been made, even as Israel backslides into destroying any hope for peace, that would be a terrible shame.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to say that the petition to compel CAP to disinvite Netanyahu was user-generated, not sponsored by MoveOn itself.