After Rift With the Left, Netanyahu Books Event With Liberal Think Tank
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to Washington for a Nov. 9 meeting with President Barack Obama -- the first between the two leaders since they engaged in a bruising and protracted feud over the Iran nuclear deal.
Call it think tank diplomacy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to Washington for a Nov. 9 meeting with President Barack Obama — the first between the two leaders since they engaged in a bruising and protracted feud over the Iran nuclear deal.
Netanyahu has been under pressure to try to repair his battered relationship with Obama and other leading Democrats and raised eyebrows when he scheduled an event at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for the same day. Perhaps mindful of the poor optics, Netanyahu has settled on a simple way of trying to defuse the controversy: giving an address to the liberal Center for American Progress, which announced Tuesday that it, too, would host the Israeli leader during his November visit.
“The Center for American Progress will hold a conversation with [Netanyahu] on a range of issues, including Iran, Israeli-Palestinian relations, regional concerns, and ways to strengthen the partnership between Israel and the United States,” the center said in a statement.
The decision to visit the liberal think tank is being welcomed by some pro-Israel Democrats, who have urged Netanyahu to try to strengthen his ties to the American left. Critics of the hard-line leader, though, said they doubted he’d use the address to announce any substantive policy shifts.
“I don’t expect him to give any ground on Iran or on a two-state solution. He’ll say what he always says,” Alan Elsner, a spokesman at the liberal pro-Israel group J Street.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment for this story. The event is expected to include an introduction of the Israeli leader followed by a question-and-answer session.
The Obama-Netanyahu bilateral meeting is expected to cover a variety of technical and topical issues, including the civil war in Syria, cybersecurity, and U.S.-Israel security cooperation in a post-Iran deal Middle East.
But many observers will be watching the body language between the two men, whose long-simmering distrust burst into public view during the height of the Iran debate earlier this year when Netanyahu — without informing the White House – accepted a Republican invitation to address Congress and argue against the deal. Obama, backed by many Democrats, accused the Israeli leader of improperly inserting himself into an American political debate.
Initial liberal complaints about Netanyahu’s upcoming visit emerged when the Israeli government announced that the prime minister would visit AEI the same day as his meeting at the White House. AEI is a prominent conservative think tank in Washington that routinely blasts Obama’s policies and maintains relationships with a wide array of veterans of the George W. Bush administration. In September, it hosted former Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the Iran deal was “madness.”
Netanyahu backers in Washington said the Israeli leader had made earnest steps to appeal to both parties.
“The Israelis have been explicit in saying that maintaining Democratic and Republican support for Israel rises to the level of a national security interest for Jerusalem,” said Omri Ceren, a spokesman for the Israel Project, a pro-Israel organization. “The prime minister had spoken from the floor of Congress about his personal commitment and deep appreciation for continued bipartisan support for Israel.”
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East diplomat who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, said Netanyahu should acknowledge and seek to address the bitter political divide over Israel.
“What matters is what he says and not where he says it,” Ross told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Monday. “I hope that the prime minister will take account that [Israel] has been a very partisan issue and it shouldn’t be.”
Netanyahu, Ross added, should reach out to “Democrats and Republicans alike” to emphasize “the nonpartisan nature of the relationship.”
The Center for American Progress, a progressive research organization that also engages in advocacy work, boasts close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Its first president and founder, John Podesta, was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Its current president is Neera Tanden, who served as policy director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008. In her current 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. Republicans, meanwhile, have increasingly sought inroads with American Jews, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
The center’s decision to host Netanyahu has rankled some employees of the progressive research organization. “I’m not thrilled with the idea of giving Netanyahu a platform, but as long as his ideas are challenged in an open way, I think it’s healthy,” said an employee who works in the center’s network.
A spokesperson with the organization declined to comment.
Photo credit: Handout/Getty Images