WASHINGTON -- After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacrificed much of his popularity with the Democratic Party by crusading against the Iran nuclear deal, and against President Barack Obama in general, he is waging a comeback effort in an upcoming trip to the United States.
As part of the tour, the Israeli government pushed hard for an invite to the Center for American Progress and landed an event at the progressive institution on Nov. 10, the day after Netanyahu has a scheduled meeting with Obama. The embassy's push for the invite, sources familiar with the lobbying said, was joined by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which also applied pressure to CAP to allow Netanyahu to speak.
CAP was founded more than a decade ago by John Podesta and has long been seen as a mouthpiece of the Democratic Party. Podesta was once chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and later to Obama, and is now the chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Podesta's successor, Neera Tanden, previously served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, as well on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Pro-Israel groups have lobbied Tanden extensively over the years, even arranging for her to visit Israel. The event in November will be a Q&A with Tanden.
Some current and former CAP employees were disappointed by the news of Netanyahu’s upcoming visit, which was first floated Tuesday by the Jewish Insider, a newsletter on Jewish politics. Multiple sources confirmed the news to The Huffington Post. (Tanden declined to comment.)
“He’s looking for that progressive validation,” said a former CAP staffer, “and they’re basically validating a guy who race-baited during his election and has disavowed the two-state solution, which is CAP’s own prior work."
In the lead-up to the last Israeli elections in March, Netanyahu, who needed the pro-settler vote to secure re-election, said he would not allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, and urged his constituents to go to the polls to offset the “droves” of Arab voters.
“This is someone who is an enemy of the progressive agenda, who has targeted Israeli human rights organizations throughout his term, and was re-elected on the back of blatant anti-Arab race-baiting,” echoed Matt Duss, who used to work at CAP and now heads the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “The idea that CAP would agree to give him bipartisan cover is really disappointing.”
Conservative pro-Israel groups also questioned the appropriateness of Netanyahu's choice of venue, but for a different reason.
“It is unusual for a head of state to speak before an institution that has been so unfairly critical of his government and country,” Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, told The Washington Free Beacon Wednesday afternoon. “But it will be worth it if he addresses, sensitively but candidly, the growing problem of left-wing animosity toward Israel.”
Until recently, bipartisan support of the sitting Israeli leader was a given. But over the past year, Netanyahu has exhausted significant political capital rallying against the Iran nuclear deal, the issue at the forefront of Obama’s foreign policy agenda.
The tipping point for many congressional Democrats came in March, when Netanyahu bypassed the White House and accepted an invitation from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) to give a speech against the not-yet-finalized nuclear accord with Iran.
Dozens of Democrats boycotted the speech, in which Netanyahu alleged that the nuclear accord would “all but guarantee” that Iran get nuclear weapons. Eight months later, an overwhelming majority of Democrats in both the House and the Senate defied Netanyahu and backed the final nuclear deal.
But Netanyahu sought to frame the partisan split as a mendable incident. “President Obama and I have both said that our differences over the nuclear deal are a disagreement within the family,” Netanyahu said earlier this month in his United Nations address, implying that family members always resolve their disputes.
Days after his address, in which he blasted the naivete of the international community for embarking on a nuclear deal with Iran, Netanyahu said he was ready to move on.
The decision and the timing of it was calculated on Netanyahu’s part. It was inevitable that he would temporarily alienate Democrats on the Iran deal, just as it was inevitable that he would alienate progressives in his pre-election day rhetoric. But he perceived the loss of the Democrats to be reversible and weighed the loss of Israeli progressives as affordable.
In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s failure to kill the Iran deal, the Israeli embassy and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee sprang into damage-control mode.
Netanyahu’s Nov. 9 meeting with Obama will be the first visit to Washington since his controversial Congress speech. The Israeli premier is also scheduled to receive an award from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank.
As part of the effort to restore Netanyahu’s clout with Democrats, the Israeli embassy reached out to Tanden, the president of CAP, requesting the institution host the prime minister during his November trip. AIPAC, which has paid for multiple CAP employees to visit Israel, followed up to pressure the think tank on the request.
CAP’s relationship with AIPAC and its allies is fraught. Three years ago, CAP employed policy analyst Matt Duss, and its publication ThinkProgress employed Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton; all three wrote controversial pieces challenging the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Pro-Israel lobbyists pushed hard against CAP, and all three felt the pressure and have since left.
Some former staffers have criticized CAP for not engaging aggressively enough in the Iran debate, a contention those involved in the fight say is simply inaccurate, and doesn't account for both its public statements and behind-the-scenes work.
To Gharib, who is now a contributor to The Nation, the organization’s decision to host Netanyahu was predictable. "It's just not surprising that if CAP is going to be willing to kowtow to the right wing, pro-Israel lobby when it comes to throwing their own staffers under the bus, that they'd give a platform to the bigoted right-wing head of the Israeli government," he said.
Gharib added that much depends on how robust the questioning of Netanyahu is, and whether a countervailing voice will be on hand. "We'll see if CAP has the fortitude to do that," he said.