Netanyahu reaches out to Democrats in Washington appearance

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden. AP

After months of cultivating President Barack Obama’s Republican foes in Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before a decidedly liberal audience on Tuesday and tried to undo what damage his unconstrained opposition to the Iran nuclear deal might have done to Israel’s position with progressive Democrats.

“You had ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We had ‘don’t care,’ ” Netanyahu quipped, one of several moments at the Center for American Progress when he reminded his audience that on issues such as gay rights and women in the military, Israel has been far more progressive than the United States. He noted that Israel has had women in combat roles in its military for decades and that they had performed with “tremendous resourcefulness.”

“I like to talk to a progressive audience about progressive ideas,” he said in opening his hour-long appearance, a remark calibrated to appeal to the audience’s self-image. The motto of the Center for American Progress is “progressive ideas for a strong, just, and free America,” and its first CEO was John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

In the audience were Democratic luminaries, including David Axelrod, the onetime Obama political adviser, and Jane Harman, the former California member of Congress who now is president of the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank. In a format billed as a conversation, Netanyahu responded to questions from CAP’s current president, Neera Tanden, Obama’s domestic policy adviser during his 2008 presidential campaign.

The appearance raised controversy within the organization, where a dozen staffers last week objected to the center’s invitation to the Israeli prime minister, saying the invitation allowed him to rehabilitate his stained image among American progressives.

“This is not just a ‘policy difference,’ ” they said in a statement that was published by The Nation magazine. “This is a person who continues to defend the deaths of over 2000 people, many of them children, last summer alone” – a reference to the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

“What do we call a disagreement of that magnitude? A thing that terrible? Would we bring in other leaders to this institution who had committed similar crimes?”

None of that emotion, however, was apparent during Netanyahu’s appearance. Indeed, only the prime minister made reference to it, noting as he took his place on the stage that “my visit here has been a source of some controversy.” He said he was grateful for the opportunity to speak at the Center for American Progress because “It’s important to me that Israel remains an issue of bipartisan consensus.”

Netanyahu made no news in the next hour of gentle questioning. He described his meeting with Obama on Monday as “very good,” and he praised the president for having met more times with Netanyahu than with any other world leader. “I appreciate that,” he said.

He said he and Obama had agreed on three objectives involving Iran: “holding Iran’s feet to the fire” on the nuclear deal, blocking Iran’s expansion in the region, and working against “Iran’s international terror network.”

In response to a question from Tanden, he once again tried to apologize for having summoned his supporters to the polls earlier this year by warning that “Arabs are voting in droves.” “This statement as it was made was wrong,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been said.”

He defended himself by saying he should be judged not by his words, but by his deeds, recalling that he had advocated flood control measures for Arab communities even though there was no likelihood they would vote for him.

He declined to make a hard-and-fast prediction about the outcome of the civil war in Syria or to say what he thought the Middle East would look like in 20 years. He described the conflicts there as “a battle between modernity and early medievalism.”

“I think ultimately medievalism will go down,” he said. “Will they lose in the next 20 years? I don’t know.”

And he defended Israel’s insistence that whatever peace agreement is finally achieved with Palestinians, Israel must remain in charge of security. He said that ongoing Israeli presence shouldn’t prevent the Palestinians from creating a thriving state – “think Germany, Okinawa and South Korea,” he said, recalling longterm American occupations.

“I don’t see the Palestinians accepting it,” he added.

Mark Seibel: 202-383-6027, @markseibel