Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AP Photo / Sebastian Scheiner)
There is dissent at the Center for American Progress. Late last month, the Democratic Party–aligned think tank announced that it would, with encouragement from the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, accept an offer from Benjamin Netanyahu’s office to host the right-wing Israeli prime minister for an event. The invite stirred controversy: Many liberals who normally fall within the Democratic Party milieu were miffed that Netanyahu, a figure who has been widely seen over the past several years as openly siding with Republicans and neoconservative ideologues, would be given an opportunity to rehabilitate his image as a bipartisan figure. “He’s looking for that progressive validation,” a former Center for American Progress (CAP) staffer told the Huffington Post, “and they’re basically validating a guy who race-baited during his election and has disavowed the two-state solution, which is CAP’s own prior work.”
The discomfort felt by many former CAP employees—including us, who, by way of disclosure, both worked at CAP in 2011 and 2012 (more on which in a bit)—turns out to also be felt inside the think tank. According to a report in Foreign Policy, around a dozen CAP employees rose at a tense all-staff meeting to deliver a statement of dissent over Netanyahu’s talk. The statement, which was obtained by The Nation from a person who was at the meeting, elucidates the staffers’ objections to hosting Netanyahu as well as the process by which the prime minister’s offer to appear came to be accepted. (The full statement follows below this post.)
“During one of our regular all-staff meetings,” a CAP spokesperson told The Nation in a statement, “we discussed the November 10th event with the Prime Minister. We discussed why CAP was holding the event and why holding the event is consistent with our progressive values. Staff expressed their thoughts and concerns about the event and had an open and engaged conversation with senior CAP leadership.” Two sources with knowledge of the all-staff meeting said CAP president Neera Tanden, who has publicly defended the Netanyahu invite and will moderate the Q&A with Netanyahu, did not attend the meeting. “Neera was traveling out of town for a few ” the CAP spokesperson said in response to a question on Tanden’s attendance, “and rather than wait to hold the meeting, we held it with senior CAP leadership.” According to Foreign Policy, the meeting was presided over by Winnie Stachelberg, a senior vice president, and Brian Katulis, a senior fellow.
“Young people in Palestine are advising young people in Ferguson on how to deal with tear gas and flash grenades.”
The staffers who rose to deliver the statement of dissent said they were left out of the process and now face difficulty returning to the communities from which they come and work with. “It becomes difficult to step outside of our building and say to our allies why this visit is happening, for some of us here we ourselves feel that we were not considered in that decision,” the statement reads. The authors cited, for example, the strong relationships built between Palestinian protesters, who face routine tear-gassing at their demonstrations, and Black Lives Matter activists in places like Ferguson, Missouri. “[I]t’s hard to separate American progress from world progress when young people in Palestine are advising young people in Ferguson on how to deal with tear gas and flash grenades,” they wrote.
In one of three sections of the statement asking tough questions of their senior colleagues, the dissenting CAP staffers questioned Netanyahu’s unapologetic justification of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014, citing the more than 2,000 Palestinian deaths, “many of them children,” in that flare-up of violence. A UN commission said both Israel and Hamas may have been responsible for war crimes in the fighting. The commission found that over 1,400 Palestinian civilians, more than 500 of them children, died in the fighting (six Israeli civilians died in the conflict). “What do we call a disagreement of that magnitude?” the CAP staffers wrote of Netanyahu’s defense of the war. “A thing that terrible? Would we bring other leaders to this institution who had committed similar crimes?”
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The internal dissent at CAP comes after a report by Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept that exposed CAP’s conduct following a smear campaign against several of its staffers in 2011 and 2012, including us (Gharib was quoted in Greenwald’s report). After being attacked by Israel lobby groups and neoconservatives for critical writing about Israel, Tanden implemented a protocol to monitor our writing, including setting certain subjects—such as criticism of AIPAC—off limits and, in one instance, censoring our work after publication. According to the Intercept, CAP imposed the measures as a means of currying favor with right-leaning pro-Israel groups and figures.
The statement at Friday’s meeting hinted that some of pressure on staffers still exists. “Some are standing; many, many more don’t feel empowered to do so,” the statement said, suggesting that the handful of staffers who rose to read the statement were supported by colleagues who were not comfortable doing do. Nonetheless, according to Foreign Policy, the statement earned a round of applause during the meeting. “There weren’t just isolated pockets of disapproval, among the staff—it was practically the whole room clapping for 10-15 seconds,” one staffer told Foreign Policy.
“Would we bring other leaders to this institution who had committed similar crimes?”
The dissent among CAP staffers over the invitation to Netanyahu shows that staffers at the progressive think tank remain uncomfortable with the Israeli prime minister and his right-wing agenda—even as CAP’s leadership shows deference to Netanyahu and helps reestablish his bipartisan credentials.
Here’s the full statement read aloud by the CAP staffers:
Ali Gharib is a contributor to The Nation.
Eli Clifton is a fellow at The Nation Institute who focuses on money in politics and US foreign policy.