Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently on what must be his easiest visit to the US in years.
The signing of the Iran nuclear deal in July means the US is now committed to a policy that most Israeli leaders and analysts consider to be dangerous and irresponsible.
At the same time, the negotiations are over, the deal is old news, and there’s nothing that Israel can do to change the outcome of a process that’s already concluded. Netanyahu — although perhaps not the entire US-Israel relationship — is now free to appear to have moved on from the Iran deal, after so much open nastiness in recent months.
This was the big takeaway from the Israeli prime minister’s controversial appearance at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday.
Moderator Neera Tanden — the president of CAP who has served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations — didn’t ask a single question that was specifically about the Iran deal. Neither did anyone in the audience, which included some of Washington, DC’s, top private-sector Middle East policy figures. It just didn’t really come up.
Netanyahu’s talk was notable for a number of reasons. Time magazine once called CAP “Obama’s ideas factory,” and the president has had an oftentimes confrontational relationship with Netanyahu, because of disagreements over both the Iran deal and the Israeli prime minister’s handling of the peace process with Palestinians.
Netanyahu reportedly reached out to CAP to set up the event, which he probably believed would play into the general narrative of his visit: that the Iran Deal was settled business, and that the prime minister could still work with the president and speak to his core elite constituency even after a seemingly major rift in relations.
There were moments in Netanyahu’s talk in which this seemed like a flawed premise. He referred to a “long-term [Israeli] security presence” to ensure that a future Palestinian state wouldn’t become a security threat, referring to post-conflict Germany and South Korea as countries that had remained sovereign while allowing another state to assume much of their security burden.
“I don’t see any other force,” he said. “Who’s going to do it? Austrian peacekeepers? We tried it on the Golan Heights.”
It’s unlikely that many in the audience shared this vision of what they might consider to be an unduly one-sided Israeli-Palestinian end-game — indeed, many at CAP didn’t even want Netanyahu speaking there in the first place.
Most awkward was when Netanyahu appealed to “progressive” values, particularly in arguing for leaving Israeli settlers in the West Bank under Palestinian sovereignty after a peace agreement.
“What’s this idea of a Palestinian state has got to be Judenrein?” he said. “That there can’t be any Jews there? What kind of standard is this that world accepts, that progressives accept?”
Netanyahu is one of the leading proponents of economic deregulation in Israeli politics and heads a right-wing nationalist government. Many progressives accuse him of a range of abuses. Some staffers at CAP believe that he’s a racist and a war criminal. It’s difficult to think that his statements had anyone rethinking their definition of “progressivism.”
At one point, Tanden felt obligated to openly justify why the event was being held at all. In the context of discussing the value of direct negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu said that his father, the renowned historian Benzion Netanyahu, was fond of saying that conversation was one way of sharpening critical thought.
“That’s was our idea here,” Tanden said.
Netanyahu’s primary success, however, came in what wasn’t discussed. The almost nonexistent focus on Iran meant that CAP and Netanyahu could reinforced the idea that the major impediment to more constructive relations between the US and Israel has been overcome, and that the outcome of the Iran nuclear issue is no longer worth talking about in the context of relations between the two countries.
The question now is how long this truce can really hold out. At some point, it’s possible that Israel and the US will disagree on some question of how and whether to enforce aspects of the landmark nuclear deal. At that point, the biggest controversy in the recent history of the US-Israel relationship won’t be so easy to ignore.
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