Netanyahu Looks Beyond Obama to Make Amends With Democrats

NETANYAHU CONGRESS

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, pauses while speaking during a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 3, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
  • Israeli leader puts liberal group on itinerary in Washington
  • Obama meeting with Netanyahu for the first time since 2014

Benjamin Netanyahu is looking past his fraught relationship with President Barack Obama to a more lasting concern as he visits Washington next week: rebuilding Israel’s standing with American Democrats.

While he’ll meet with the president and speak at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Israel’s prime minister also has arranged an address at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based institution with ties to liberal Democratic groups and to Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination .

The choice is no accident. At CAP, Netanyahu can remind his audience of aspects of Israeli culture and law that appeal to U.S. social liberals, such as acceptance of gay rights, while rebranding Israel’s security concerns as global ones and trying to put the U.S.-Israel relationship on more nonpartisan footing a year before the 2016 presidential election.

“He understands the need to reach out," said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a member of the Knesset from the Kulanu party, part of Netanyahu’s coalition government. “It’s Israel’s duty to reach out to progressives and liberals, and I don’t think we’ve done a very good job.”

Netanyahu is returning to Washington for the first time since his very public, and failed, attempt in March to block Obama’s drive for approval of a multinational nuclear deal with Iran. In that effort, he explicitly sided with congressional Republicans and spoke to Congress without consulting the White House.

QuickTake: U.S.-Israel Relations

Obama administration officials made clear that they viewed Netanyahu’s maneuver as a breach of protocol and a slap at the president, who remains broadly popular within his party. A relationship between the two leaders that had been chilly throughout their terms turned to ice.

Democrats reacted. In a poll taken after Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the Pew Research Center found that only 19 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Netanyahu, compared with 47 percent of Republicans.

Transcendent Relationship

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, in an interview Wednesday, said Netanyahu doesn’t need to make amends with her. She said her support for Israel transcends individual prime ministers. Nonetheless, Pelosi said Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress at the invitation of the Republican leadership was an “inappropriate” violation of the tradition that a foreign leader addresses Congress only with bipartisan agreement.

Pelosi indicated she didn’t plan to meet with Netanyahu when he makes the rounds with congressional leaders next week. “I won’t be in town,” she said. 

Dylan Williams, chief lobbyist for liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, said the prime minister’s itinerary shows “a recognition at some level that the onus is on Netanyahu to repair his relationship with many in the center and on the left here in Washington and across the country.”

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, declined to parse Netanyahu’s strategy. “We believe that it’s really important that there’s a strong relationship between our two countries, and we hope this event helps,” she said.

‘Constructive Step’

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said Netanyahu’s outreach to Democrats as well as Republicans is “certainly a positive and constructive step.”

While saying there’s “nothing that can be done to cover up the fact that we have a policy difference” regarding the Iran deal, Rhodes said the administration will continue high-level security cooperation and support for Israel.

Netanyahu may have stepped on his message of reconciliation before coming to the U.S. with his appointment of Ran Baratz as his new chief of public diplomacy. In March, Baratz posted on Facebook that Obama’s reaction to Netanyahu’s congressional speech was “modern anti-Semitism.”

Beyond disagreement over the Iran deal, many Democrats have been critical of Netanyahu over the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. A pro-Palestinian activist group, Alternative Information Center, plans to press the point by organizing a protest around Netanyahu’s visit to the Center for American Progress.

Shifting Power

The tensions reflect two trends -- U.S. demographics that are shifting the makeup of the Democratic Party to empower groups less rooted in pro-Israel allegiance and more sympathetic to Palestinians, and the rise of Israeli governing coalitions that take a harder line in dealing with the Palestinians and on making any deals with Iran. That threatens to unravel a decades-old political alliance that was forged when blacks and Jews found common cause in the American civil rights movement.

"It has been a significant problem and an increasingly significant problem over time," said Frank Luntz, a Republican political consultant. His study of so-called opinion elites in both political parties earlier this year drew attention for findings that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to doubt Israel’s commitment to peace with the Palestinians and more likely to consider Israel as having too much influence on U.S. foreign policy.

“The more Republicans embrace Israel, the more hesitation Democrats have,” Luntz said. “It wasn’t just the Iranian agreement. It’s how to deal with the Palestinians, how to deal with the UN.”

Oren, who grew up in New Jersey, said he’s concerned that too many Democrats “wrongly” perceive Israeli society and politics as being in conflict with liberal values. He said the critique of Israel’s role in the failure to get a Palestinian peace deal also has become “very distorted.”

2016 Campaign

Some Democrats also have chafed over impressions Netanyahu favored Republican Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012, even as the prime minister’s team insisted he wasn’t interfering in a U.S. election.  While the 2016 Republican contenders embrace Israel and criticize Obama as being hostile, Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy center, said he doubts Netanyahu will be making any public pronouncements about the U.S. presidential campaign now under way.

“I think he’s betting he will have a better relationship with whoever the next president is,” Alterman said. “But his instincts are Republican instincts.”

Israel still carries weight in the Democratic Party. Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state, published an opinion piece in the Forward, a Jewish publication, on Wednesday affirming her support for the Jewish state and reiterating actions she took while in the administration to demonstrate it. If elected president, Clinton said she would invite Israel’s prime minister to the White House in her first month in office.

“I have stood with Israel my entire career,” Clinton wrote. “The alliance between our two nations transcends politics.”

Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama marks a thaw as their first since the U.S. and five other world powers agreed with Iran on a plan to block the Islamic Republic from building a nuclear weapon.

“The Israelis are now accepting they have to deal with the morning after, accept that they have to repair at least the optics of the relationship, if not the relationship itself,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington.

Israel’s Agenda

In his White House meetings, Netanyahu will focus on ensuring Israel has the military support it needs to defend itself against threats in the region that go beyond Iran to include Hezbollah on the border of Lebanon and Islamic State terrorists.  Rhodes said the two sides won’t settle on a military aid package during the meeting. Israel is seeking to boost annual U.S. military aid to $4.5 billion annually, up from $3.1 billion, according to Oren. Rhodes declined to give a specific amount that is being discussed.

Obama plans to discuss with Netanyahu what steps will be taken if Iran violates the terms of the agreement and dealing with the “significant Iranian threats” against Israel in its sponsorship of terrorist groups and meddling in the region, Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on a conference call.

The Israeli prime minister also is conveying a message back home that the relationship between the two countries is still intact. 

“He took quite a bit of heat for damaging the relationship with the U.S.,” Sachs said. “Even Israelis who agreed with him about the dangers of the Iran deal were concerned about damage to the broader relationship because they understand how important the relationship is.”

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