How well did the Center for American Progress do in its controversial role as host of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 10th? In the wake of strident criticism from progressives that CAP was being played by Netanyahu who wanted to shore up Israel’s relationships with Democrats after his foray last year into Washington in partnership with Congressional Republicans in opposition to President Obama’s proposed nuclear treaty with Iran, CAP staff rebelled against its leadership and took great exception to the scheduled one-hour Netanyahu show. Would CAP’s leadership, beginning with CAP president Neera Tanden, the designated interlocutor for the Netanyahu speech, rise to the occasion and hold the combative Israeli Prime Minister to account for policies that many Democrats have questioned, or would the nonprofit think tank collapse in deference to the visiting head of state—especially since the leadership of the Center for American Progress has had strong relationships with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
A review of the press coverage of the Netanyahu gig suggests mixed results for the Center’s performance, though leaning more to the negative than positive.
As expected, critics of Israeli policies were scathing in their comments about the CAP show. Mondoweiss, a left-wing anti-Zionist blog founded by journalist Philip Weiss, was unsparing. “Tanden spoke as a supplicant,” Weiss wrote in a piece he coauthored with James North. “All her questions were so tentative that Netanyahu could have begun each answer with, ‘I’m glad you asked that question.’ Tanden bent over backwards not to offend the prime minister.”
Slate’s Joshua Keating also suggested that Tanden’s role as questioner hadn’t been particularly tough:
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.
American writer and Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart eviscerated Netanyahu’s speech as more evidence that the Israeli PM deserves the sobriquet he earned from Tony Blair’s foreign ministry as the “armor-plated bullshitter.”
Perhaps to mollify in-house critics, CAP allowed five staff writers for the CAP online publication ThinkProgress, though making a big point of the outlet’s editorial independence from CAP, to lay out ten “falsehoods” that Netanyahu made in his conversation with Tanden. Beginning with Netanyahu’s contention that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank was not a “core” issue impacting the potential of peace between Israel and Palestine, the misstatements of fact were obvious to most observers. Particularly eyebrow-raising were Netanyahu’s contentions that there have been no new settlements built in the past 20 years (because the Israeli government redefines the new settlements as extensions of Israeli “neighborhoods”) and that the settlements make up only a tiny part of the West Bank (ignoring that significantly larger areas connecting and around the settlements are designated as off-limits to Palestinians).
These and other points in Netanyahu’s presentation were so excruciatingly obvious, the missing point in the ThinkProgress article was the needed scrutiny of why Tanden didn’t pursue these questions—or why perhaps she was unprepared to do so. ThinkProgress may present itself to be editorially independent of its parent organization, but sidestepping a critique of Tanden’s inadequate follow-up questions looks a little like polite self-censorship.
Had Tanden read her own staff’s research, she could have drawn upon the data used in a