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Netanyahu Visit Sparks Internal Backlash at Powerhouse D.C. Think Tank

Netanyahu Visit Sparks Internal Backlash at Powerhouse D.C. Think Tank

A simmering internal disagreement at the Center for American Progress over the think tank’s decision to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week escalated into open dissent and infighting during an intense but civil all-staff meeting on Friday, according to two people with direct knowledge of the exchange.

The powerful liberal think tank — known in Washington simply as CAP — will host Netanyahu on Tuesday as part of the Israeli leader’s closely watched visit to the United States aimed at repairing ties between Jerusalem and Washington following the bruising debate over the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday morning and will finish the day at an award dinner at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Since the announcement of the event at CAP last month, the progressive group has come under fire from former CAP officials and peace activists who argue that hosting the Israeli leader inadvertently gives his right-wing policies a bipartisan stamp of approval. In an effort to quell concerns internally, Winnie Stachelberg, CAP’s executive vice president for external affairs, and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow, explained and defended the decision to host Netanyahu in an all-staff meeting on the 10th floor of CAP on Friday.

According to two individuals in the room, Katulis and Stachelberg told staff that the decision to approve the Israeli government’s request for an event came after careful consideration. They touted the fact that Netanyahu would undergo tough scrutiny in a question-and-answer format and that CAP is well suited to provide accurate context to issues facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The discussion will be moderated by CAP President Neera Tanden.

But following the remarks, around a dozen CAP employees stood up and delivered an impassioned joint statement criticizing CAP’s decision to hold the event, read aloud by a designated speaker.

“It was a rebuttal,” said one staff member who was at the meeting. “It was clear that the sentiment was that this was the wrong choice to make as a progressive institution that cares about human rights, justice, and the oppressed.”

The opponents of the event said they doubted the merits of a dialogue given the Netanyahu government’s conduct in recent years, particularly in the 2014 Gaza conflict, which resulted in the deaths of 2,100 Palestinians and 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel. Left-wing critics and humanitarian organizations have long accused Israel of using disproportionate force in bombing raids and policing efforts; Israel and its backers in the United States have noted that Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel indiscriminately and operated in crowded civilian areas.

At the Friday meeting, opponents of the upcoming event received an enthusiastic round of applause in the 100-plus person conference room despite the presence of senior CAP leadership. “There weren’t just isolated pockets of disapproval, among the staff — it was practically the whole room clapping for 10-15 seconds,” said another staffer in the room.

Stachelberg, in an interview with Foreign Policy, said she would not discuss the details of an internal meeting except that “the staff expressed their thoughts, and we had an open and engaged discussion with senior CAP leadership.”

She noted that as a think tank, “we believe we need to be open in engaging with people we don’t agree with.”

“Had we said no [to Netanyahu], there would be no public forum where he would’ve been asked tough questions, and quite frankly, we would’ve been hypocritical,” she said. She noted that the Israelis reached out to CAP in the first place and that in the past, CAP has been “highly critical of the prime minister for only dealing with the right.”

The dispute at CAP is in many ways reflective of a broader ideological struggle within American liberalism about support for Israel. The Democratic Party establishment and donor class are strongly supportive of the Jewish state and are seeking to find new ways to increase U.S. military aid for Israel following the Iran deal. But recent polling shows that support for Israel among rank-and-file Democrats has fallen by 10 points in one year. A Gallup poll released this year found that fewer than half of Democrats, 48 percent, report sympathizing more with Israelis than with Palestinians as it relates to the Middle East conflict, while 83 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel.

Grassroots Democrats are increasingly skeptical of Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution with Palestine, and his pre-election campaigning in March warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves” cemented some of those concerns. (The Israeli leader apologized for those remarks following his election victory.) Netanyahu’s public campaign to undermine Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran also created divisions within the Democratic Party.

The controversy at CAP has gained attention given the organization’s close affiliations with the Clinton family. CAP’s first president and founder, John Podesta, was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and is Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman. CAP‘s current president, Tanden, served as policy director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. If Clinton manages to win her bid for the White House, a number of CAP staffers are well positioned for plum jobs in the next U.S. administration. In Clinton’s bid for the White House, the Democratic front-runner has delicately sought to convince Jewish voters that she would be better for Israel than Obama. She has expressed this to wealthy pro-Israel donors in a number of closed-door discussions, with varying levels of success. Some Obama administration officials and left-leaning activists resent such overtures.

The dissidents within CAP, meanwhile, are drawing support from an array of other like-minded progressives. On Monday, the left-leaning Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab American Institute released a letter expressing disappointment with CAP’s decision to host Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu knows that he has created a deep partisan divide in the US over Israeli policies and is attempting to repackage his increasingly far-right agenda as bi-partisan consensus,” reads the letter, signed by Noah T. Winer, a co-founder of MoveOn.org; Karen Ackerman, former AFL-CIO political director; Samer Khalaf, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; and other progressive leaders and organizations.

Separately, the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is planning to picket outside CAP’s offices on Tuesday, promoting the slogan that “Netanyahu is #NotProgressive.”

On Monday, Obama and Netanyahu struck a conciliatory tone and said they would be discussing plans for future U.S. military assistance to Israel as part of a new memorandum of understanding to be negotiated over the next two years.

“Mr. President, I want to thank you for your commitment to further bolstering Israel’s security in the memorandum of understanding that we’re discussing,” Netanyahu said. Israel already receives $3.1 billion a year in American military aid, more than any other country, but officials have suggested the assistance package could expand under a new agreement.

Foreign Policy national security reporter Dan De Luce contributed to this report

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