Should the Center for American Progress host a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
Eighteen organizations and 117 individuals — largely from academia and non-governmental organizations — don’t think so, and they have signed an open letter circulated by the group Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab American Institute saying they are “dismayed that CAP will sponsor an address by Netanyahu” during the prime minister’s visit to Washington this week.
The group Jewish Voice for Peace also has circulated a petition from the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation that it says has garnered more than 26,300 signatures and was delivered to CAP last week.
CAP has responded that it is a think tank and has often hosted speakers with different views, including then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and conservative Fund for Growth founder Stephen Moore.
The signatories to the letter describe themselves as “progressive leaders.” But CAP President Neera Tanden said, “There is a progressive value to have an open discourse on important topics of the day.” And Tanden said that the session with Netanyahu would feature a question-and-answer period and members of the CAP audience can press the prime minister on any issue.
Here’s some of the backstory: One of Netanyahu’s main goals during his visit to Washington this week is to patch up relations damaged during his vehement campaign earlier this year to block the Iran nuclear deal. During that effort, Netanyahu reached out to Republican leaders to arrange an address to Congress without consulting the Obama administration. Many Democratic lawmakers who have been longtime supporters of Israel and who also supported the Iran deal were put in a tough spot. Many people criticized Netanyahu for turning the accord and Israel policy into a partisan political issue.
So for this visit, Netanyahu reached out to two think tanks, one conservative and one liberal. On Monday, he will address a dinner held by the American Enterprise Institute and on Tuesday, he will speak at CAP. In between, he will meet with Democratic lawmakers and the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group.
Tanden said that CAP is among those critical of Netanyahu for seeming to talk only to conservatives and as a result, she said, it would seem odd to say no to him when he seeks to address a progressive group such as CAP.
But the open letter protesting the appearance said that CAP was granting Netanyahu some legitimacy. Among those who signed it were MoveOn.org co-founder Noah T. Winer; Samer Khalaf, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; journalist and activist Naomi Klein; former AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman; Zaid Jilani, a former ThinkProgress blogger; playwright and activist Eve Ensler; the Center for Constitutional Rights; the Muslim Public Affairs Council; and the Center for Media Justice.
“Having courted Republicans as his natural allies, he has, on three occasions, addressed joint sessions of Congress, using all of them to turn ‘peace negotiations’ into a blank check for ever more expansionist policies of Occupation,” the group’s open letter says. “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.”
Tanden responded: “It was not an easy decision but at end of day we are a think tank. He’s the leader of a country with which the US has a very strong relationship. There are issues we care about in Israel and the region. So we agreed to hold a forum."