“It’s vital to understand how important it for me that Israel remain an issue of bipartisan consensus in the United States,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to a smattering of applause at the Center for American Progress in Washington on Tuesday. It’s a sentiment he expresses often when speaking to American audiences. Just saying it, however, doesn’t make it true.
The prime minister is in Washington on something of a fence-mending mission with American liberals, following this year’s fractious debate over the Iran nuclear deal. During that debate, Netanyahu often seemed directly aligned with congressional Republicans against the White House to a highly unusual extent for a foreign leader. He visited the White House for a relatively cordial visit with Obama on Monday and addressed the Jewish Federation of North America earlier on Tuesday, but his visit to CAP—the influential liberal think tank closely allied with the Obama administration—was likely the most anticipated event of his trip.
It was a logical time for Netanyahu to attempt some outreach. The passions surrounding the Iran deal have subsided. The recent wave of stabbings and attacks in Jerusalem have likely raised the anxiety of many American supporters of Israel. Perhaps most crucially for the prime minister, Obama only has one year left in office. The Republicans vying to replace him have all bent over backwards in the primary to demonstrate their love of Israel, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has put out signals that she’ll differ from Obama when it comes to Israel policy in a way that Netanyahu will probably like. Clinton recently penned a fairly pandering op-ed in the Forward promising to “reaffirm the unbreakable bonds of friendship” between the U.S. and Israel. (Her piece notably did not mention the Iran nuclear deal that she played a key role setting in motion.)
The decision itself to give Netanyahu a platform provoked fierce internal debate at the center, but CAP’s leaders promised tough questions.
In the end, it didn’t quite feel as if Netanyahu was walking into the lion’s den. Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, a former Obama administration staffer with a background in domestic policy and health care, didn’t seem particularly inclined to challenge Netanyahu’s more misleading statements or ask follow-up questions, mostly allowing him free rein to make his pitch to American progressives.
Netanyahu offered requisite praise for Obama early on, saying the American president met with him more than any other world leader and that “the importance that he attaches to this relationship is unique.” He also touted Israel as a hive of progressive social values on issues like how it treats gay service members, quipping “You had ‘don’t ask don’t tell.’ We have, ‘we don’t care.’”
He also brushed aside criticism of his controversial warnings prior to the last election that conservatives needed to come out in force to combat high anticipated Arab turnout. “This statement as it was said was wrong,” he offered. (He then claimed, inaccurately, that Arabs “voted for me in considerably higher numbers than the Labor Party.”)
Netanyahu denied the notion that his government had been a particular obstacle to peace with the Palestinians,. “There were five other prime ministers since Oslo,” he said. “How come they didn’t make peace?” (This obviously ignores the fact that one of them was assassinated for trying to do so.)
Netanyahu ultimately blamed the lack of progress in peace negotiations on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. “I am willing to enter talks without any conditions,” he said. “For the last seven years, Abu Mazen deigned to talk to me for six hours.” (Abbas has said he will not enter into talks as long as settlement construction activity continues.)
On the topic of “price tag” attacks by radical Israelis against Palestinians, like the firebombing of a Palestinian family in the village of Duma in July, Netanyahu contended that Israeli and Palestinian violence were “not symmetrical.”
“There are many Dumas on the Palestinian side of the ledger. Every four hours they have a Duma,” he said (Netanyahu clarified that he was talking about attempted acts of violence, not successful killings on the scale of Duma, where three people, including an 18-month old child were killed. Twelve Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks since mid-September, according to the AP, while 77 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire.)
While Netanyahu can be startlingly tone deaf at times when talking to international audiences, he was at his best at CAP—pugnacious, funny, and self-deprecating. His hosts also seemed to be trying hard not to make things uncomfortable. Of course, Netanyahu’s tour of outreach to wavering American liberals might have been more effective if he wasn’t embroiled in a controversy over a his newly hired public diplomacy chief, a man who has accused Obama of anti-Semitism and suggested that John Kerry has the IQ of a 12-year-old. The newer, friendlier Bibi only goes so far.