Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to Washington this week, in an apparent effort to make amends with weary Democrats who have grown frustrated with the partisan gulf that has emerged between leaders of the United States and Israel.
The Israeli prime minister is looking to rebuild the bridges that were burned during the bitter fight over the Iran nuclear deal. Rancor has lingered for months between his administration on one side and the White House and liberals in Congress on the other.
The announcement of the discussion has already stirred some controversy on the American left, particularly among liberals who fear that the think tank is letting itself become a puppet for Netanyahu’s domestic political agenda.
But the stage nevertheless gives Netanyahu a chance to reach out to the liberal corner of Washington while also soothing political concerns back home, said Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former policy analyst at CAP.
“His goal is achieved the moment he gets up to talk at the Center for American Progress,” Duss said.
According to the Huffington Post, both the Israeli embassy and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee pressured CAP to give Netanyahu a stage.
A detente would also be welcomed by many Democrats, who feel that Netanyahu’s fierce opposition to the nuclear accord put them in an uneasy position.
“As someone who supported the [nuclear] agreement, I am very uncomfortable with the fact that I was so publicly on record in opposition to the prime minister of Israel, a country that I care deeply about,” Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyHouse passes medical cures bill Sanders, Warren stir Dem turmoil over cures bill Lawmakers reach deal to vote on Cures, mental health bills MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill on Thursday.
“That was an uncomfortable break for me, and I am 100 percent focused on trying to put this relationship in a better place, and using this visit as a means to do that,” he added.
President Obama and Netanyahu may never see eye to eye, the White House acknowledged, given the tensions that have ebbed and flowed throughout Obama’s seven years in office.
Yet their seemingly irreconcilable personal differences are “almost completely immaterial” to the broader relationship between the two close allies, press secretary Josh Earnest insisted this week.
Netanyahu is heading into the heart of both the right and left during his trip, with an appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) as well as at CAP.
“It demonstrates at least a recognition that for the last couple of years there has been some effort to maybe make the support for Israel a partisan wedge issue in our politics,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at CAP. “And that’s generally bad for Israel and bad for the United States.”
In addition to CAP and AEI, Netanyahu is also speaking at the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America on Tuesday.
He’s also planning to meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), their offices said, though it’s unclear which other members of Congress will be gathered around the table. The House is out of session this week, and both Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) are out of town.
Netanyahu has never been especially close with Obama, and was perceived to be actively supporting Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential election.
But the relationship took an especially dark turn this year, following a controversial speech that Netanyahu delivered to Congress and his subsequent vigorous lobbying to kill the pact with Iran.
Netanyahu was accused of going behind the White House’s back for the speech, which was viewed as a breach of diplomatic protocol. Fifty-six congressional Democrats ended up skipping the remarks, as did Vice President Joe Biden.
In the process, Netanyahu turned himself — and, to an extent, the U.S.-Israel relationship — into a partisan topic. In the aftermath of the speech, just 19 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Netanyahu, compared to 47 percent of Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center survey taken in March.
“Within the American Jewish community, the divide has still not healed,” said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
To be sure, Democrats are as united as ever in their expressed support for Israel’s security.
“Even while Senate Democrats were endorsing the Iran deal, they emphasized that the next thing they intended to do was work to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship even further,” noted Omri Ceren, a managing director at the Israel Project, who called claims of a rift “overblown.”
There are clearly some wounds, however, even if opinions differ as to their depth. Whether or not they can be healed also remains to be seen.
Democratic lawmakers and other liberal watchers of Israel say that Netanyahu should let sleeping dogs lie on the Iran deal, and focus on the sweeping security ties between the U.S. and Israel.
Yet that might be easier said than done.
Netanyahu and his close advisors have made a series of comments in recent weeks that many felt were offensive.
Last month, the prime minister was widely condemned for saying that it was a Palestinian who gave Adolf Hitler the idea to commit genocide against Jewish people during the Holocaust. Just last week — on the eve of his visit to Washington — Netanyahu appointed a new public diplomacy chief who said that Obama was an anti-Semite who had “thrown us under the wheels of the bus” in pushing for the nuclear deal.
For some liberals, those words and actions reflect a troubling tendency to play to Netanyahu’s own political base at the expense of international harmony.
“Netanyahu’s actions reflect a pattern of missteps and then a correction,” said Dylan Williams, the vice president of government affairs at the left-leaning Israeli advocacy group J Street.
“He has an extremely difficult task ahead of him when he comes here, and it’s frankly one that I don’t think he can accomplish unless he fundamentally changes his outlook and policies.”
“The America that Prime Minister Netanyahu is most familiar with is the America that elected Ronald Reagan president,” said former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who is now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
“He needs to familiarize himself with the America that elected Barack ObamaBarack ObamaConfirm Scott Palk for the Western District of Oklahoma Dean drifts behind in DNC race Republicans tried to flip Electoral College voters too — look at 2008 MORE president.”