Yes, Netanyahu Should Speak to a Democratic Think Tank

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From the Department of Nonsensical Controversies, Washington Division:

A modest collection of far-left groups and activists, led by the misnamed “Jewish Voice for Peace” is protesting the decision by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a question-and-answer session tomorrow afternoon. Netanyahu, who is seeking to mend relations with American liberals (not with actions, alas, as I argue in this post), asked for a meeting at CAP in order to open a channel of communication with his Democratic Party critics. To those who dislike Netanyahu, CAP is dirtying itself by allowing him into its offices (and of course, in certain fevered minds, it is succumbing to pressure from perfidious Zionist money interests, etc. etc.).

An open letter addressed to CAP from its critics states: “Having courted Republicans as his natural allies, [Netanyahu] 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. 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.”

This argument would barely make sense even if CAP were hosting Netanyahu for a speech. But Netanyahu isn’t delivering a speech at CAP; he will be taking questions from Neera Tanden, the think tank’s president, and from audience members. He will only succeed in repackaging his “increasingly far-right agenda as bi-partisan consensus” if he convinces CAP that his position is correct. In other words, this is a much more dangerous exercise for Netanyahu than it is for CAP.

The arguments in favor of CAP’s invitation are strong:

  1. It is a think tank, and think tanks, at least those striving for some level of intellectual honesty, should listen to people who have  different thoughts;
  2. It would be odd for a think tank aligned with the Democrats, who have argued over the past year that Netanyahu speaks only to conservatives, to turn down an opportunity to engage him on the issues;
  3. The Democratic Party remains a pro-Israel party. I know that this fact will be disputed by Sheldon Adelson, and I know that those rallying against Netanyahu’s appearance (and against Israel more generally) would like this not to be true, but it is. The overwhelming majority of Democratic elected officials are, by any mainstream measure, pro-Israel, and the party’s platform is pro-Israel. The Netanyahu invite should not even be considered controversial.

I assume that tomorrow’s questions will be tough, and I hope Netanyahu opens his ears to the liberal critique of his policies. This critique is not going away, and it’s a good thing that CAP is willing to engage Netanyahu, rather than excoriate him. Excoriations he can dismiss; earnest, constructive criticism from important allies is slightly harder to ignore.