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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE’s controversial bid to cement friendlier ties with the American left yielded decidedly mixed results Tuesday, during an occasionally tense hour-long conversation at a liberal think tank.
Some liberals had questioned the Center for American Progress’s (CAP) decision to host the right-leaning Netanyahu, following a series of disagreements over the Iran nuclear deal, Middle East peace and comments that many interpreted as racist.
Before the event, about a dozen CAP employees reportedly opposed Netanyahu’s presence, telling their bosses that the prime minister has a “record of oppression” that is at odds with the group's mission.
Roughly 20 protesters had taken up positions outside of CAP, standing in the unseasonably warm Washington rain before Netanyahu sat down for a discussion inside.
“How can Israel be a democracy but still enact discriminatory laws against Palestinians?” asked one sign. The protester appeared to be linked to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has been critical of Netanyahu.
As Netanyahu spoke, reporters from ThinkProgress, a liberal news outlet associated with CAP, criticized his claims about Israeli settlers as “false” and “incorrect.”
Yet Netanyahu appeared aware of the criticism, and made clear that he came to bury the hatchet.
“I know that my visit here has been a source of some controversy so I doubly appreciate the invite,” Netanyahu told the crowd, crammed elbow-to-elbow in a think tank's conference room. “It’s vital that Israel remain an issue of bipartisan consensus.”
“Conversation fertilizes thought,” he added later, in response to a question about peace with the Palestinians that seemed to serve a double purpose.
"We all wanted to move forward because we believe progress is impossible without dialogue," added CAP President Neera Tanden, a veteran of both the Obama and Clinton administrations.
Tensions between Netanyahu and the Obama administration have always been high, but emerged into sharper focus over the course of the last year. Many Democrats were visibly offended by a speech the Israeli prime minister gave to Congress in March, and dozens ended up boycotting the remarks.
The transatlantic tensions only grew after the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu and his allies lobbied vigorously for Congress to kill.
Tuesday’s remarks were a chance to make amends.
On the nuclear deal, Netanyahu seemed to abandon the bitter rhetoric of his previous warnings, and instead pledged to press forward to implement the pact.
The U.S. and Israel should “hold Iran’s feet to the fire,” he said, and “make sure they abide by their obligations” under the deal.
The two countries should also “work to block Iran’s aggression and terror in the region” as well as “ Iran’s international terror network,” he added, in an echo of remarks delivered earlier in the day.
At times, Netanyahu characterized Israeli policy as more liberal than America’s, such as its lack of restrictions on gay people in the military.
He also made pains to mention his administration’s expressed support for Arab Israelis, and its status as the only democracy in the Middle East.
“Israel is not perfect,” Netanyahu acknowledged.
“I think that if you look at all the values and all the rights that you deem important — I’m talking about the rights of women or the rights of gays or the rights of minorities, the rights of Arabs, the rights of people — these are enshrined in an imperfect society.”
Responses to questions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians seem unlikely to calm his loudest critics, though.
On the prospects for a two-state solution, Netanyahu dismissed the notion that Israel had in any way set back talks, and instead blamed Palestinian intransigence.
“There is no symmetry in Israeli and Palestinian society,” he said. ”We do not teach our children — we don’t sent them to suicide kindergarten camps.”
New Israeli settlements, he insisted, are also not a barrier to peace, despite the claims of many of Israel’s critics.
“We’re not gobbling up land,” Netanyahu maintained.
When asked a question about his “Plan b” if a peace accord with the Palestinians is impossible, Netanyahu seemed unprepared, and reverted to a monologue and the need to reassure Israel’s security.
“Any deal or any agreements or any arrangement, unilateral or negotiated, must have Israel maintain the ability to defend itself by itself from any threat, including from territories that are ceded,” he said. “That’s the most important provision.
“That is something that I don’t see the Palestinians accepting now.”
Many of the comments were greeted with raised eyebrows and slight chuckles in the crowded room of journalists, mostly liberal diplomats and foreign policy experts.
The White House, acknowledging political reality, said last week that the prospect of an independent Palestine alongside Israel was “not in the cards” during the year that President Obama has left in office.
Even if Tuesday afternoon’s discussing did not turn Netanyahu into a liberal figure, it seemed to eliminate any notion that he was growing apart from the U.S., regardless of the domestic political dynamics.
As evidence of the two countries’ commitments, the White House announced Tuesday that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will visit Washington in December. After meeting with Obama, Rivlin will “be an honored guest” at the White House’s Hanukkah reception.
- Updated at 5:27 p.m.