WASHINGTON ““ In one corner was the Center for American Progress, or CAP, arguably Washington’s leading liberal think tank with reportedly considerable clout with President Barack Obama’s White House. In the other was Josh Block, a pugnacious former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who aggressively pushed the notion to reporters that CAP has an Israel problem.
Nearly two months after their dispute made headlines, both parties have been left bloodied – and some in the pro-Israel community say they wish the issue had never played out in so public a way.
“We have been contacted by a couple of people” at CAP “who want to see some peace,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee. “We don’t want a war with CAP, although that probably is the intention of some people.”
Today, CAP is noticeably more careful about how its affiliated Think Progress and Middle East Progress blogs treat the issue of Israel. Block, meanwhile, was ousted from the Truman National Security Project, a network of young Democrats with an interest in foreign policy, for what it described as “uncivil discourse.”
At issue were posts on the Think Progress and Middle East Progress blogs that either harshly criticized Israel and its U.S. allies, or questioned calls for a tougher line on Iran. In addition, there were personal tweets by a Middle East Progress blogger that used the words “Israel Firster” – a phrase that many in the Jewish community feel is anti-Semitic – to disparage some supporters of Israel.
Late last year, Block released a file of what he said were statements that showed CAP, as well as the liberal group Media Matters, using the “words of anti-Semites.” The website Politico ran a story Dec. 7 that said CAP and Media Matters were “challenging a bipartisan consensus on Israel and Palestine that has dominated American foreign policy for more than a decade.”
CAP emphatically denies that it is hostile to Israel and insists that its bloggers’ writings do not necessarily reflect its position.
CAP e-mailed a statement to JTA noting the group’s “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism and other forms of bias.
Figures close to the think tank, asking not to be named, said they see Block’s effort as a bid to keep views critical of Israel out of the discourse, or challenge what they see as pieties about the dangers posed by Iran. They also acknowledged, however, that CAP recently has been more careful about moderating its writers’ language on the topic.
Officials at some pro-Israel groups expressed frustration with the public attack on CAP at a time that they were trying to address their differences with the group through quiet diplomacy.
“At the highest levels of AIPAC, there is a philosophy of never going to the media with policy disputes,” an AIPAC official said on condition of anonymity.
“We’re not happy this has taken the course it has,” the official said. “We would have preferred it was dealt with quietly.”
The official made clear that AIPAC remained frustrated with CAP. Top AIPAC officials would meet with top CAP officials, the official said, and these meetings would conclude with an agreement by CAP to more closely monitor blog posts. AIPAC recently took CAP officials on an Israel tour, the official noted.
Yet CAP and its Middle East shop in particular would consistently return to what AIPAC perceived as unfair depictions of the policies of Israel and its supporters.
The stakes are high because of CAP’s perceived closeness to the Obama White House and the Democratic policy community.
Block says that CAP has allowed its bloggers to peddle distortions and falsehoods that demonize the pro-Israel community.
“As long as CAP chooses to have people writing the organization’s day-to-day views on national security and Middle East issues who truck in language and theories more at home on White Power and anti-Jewish conspiracy websites than in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, CAP’s work will be judged accordingly and the organization will continue to see its credibility erode,” Block told JTA.
Block is not alone in his distaste for some of CAP’s rhetoric.
“There were certain things that CAP was responsible for putting in the public arena that were not fair to Israel’s strategic situation and people who are sympathetic to Israel’s situation,” the AJCommittee’s Isaacson said.
Perhaps the most incendiary items were tweets by Think Progress staffer Zaid Jilani, who several times used the term “Israel Firster” on his private Twitter feed.
In the wake of the Politico article, three Jewish groups – the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the AJCommittee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center – expressed alarm. The obnoxious-sounding term, the ADL says, plays “into the old anti-Semitic notion that Jews are more loyal to some foreign entity than to their own country.”
CAP repudiated the term and Jilani expunged it from his Twitter feed the posts that used the term.
Jilani has left CAP. Sources say he used the term because it had been used repeatedly by M.J. Rosenberg, a one-time AIPAC staffer who long ago turned against the organization and now blogs for Media Matters, another target of Block’s ire. Rosenberg is a figure known in the left-leaning Middle East policy community as an analyst who can be incisive, but who frequently veers into provocative rhetoric and name-calling.
Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters’ executive vice president, said that the terminology was beside the point.
“When we’re talking war and peace, the facts that tweets come up is symbolic of how the conversation has gone awry,” said Rabin-Havt, who also said the survival of Israel was critical to him personally. “We should debate this. As Israel is one of our largest recipients of foreign aid, this is an American and Israeli issue.”
Yet it is the contours of that debate that trouble pro-Israel groups. Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, singled out an article by Eli Clifton, a Think Progress staffer, that seemed to suggest that AIPAC was driving the country toward war with Iran.
In an Aug. 10 post, Clifton described an AIPAC statement applauding a bipartisan Senate letter urging sanctions on Iran’s central bank as drawing “eerie parallels between the escalation of sanctions against Iran and the slow lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
Sources close to CAP say the organization recognizes how Clifton’s language may have been problematic, and that it would be more useful to describe groups such as AIPAC as backing measures that could escalate into military conflict, rather than accusing them of seeking war.
AIPAC does not advocate war with Iran. In public and private forums, its officials have made clear their fears of the consequences of military conflict.
In a later clarification appended to Clifton’s post, Think Progress said, “Given Iran’s horrible record on human rights abuses and outright hostile and anti-Semitic rhetoric towards Israel, an Iran with nuclear weapons is very concerning and we support responsible measures to reduce that threat.”
In a Dec. 7 email forwarding the Politico story about the controversy to reporters, Block pointed to examples of what he said were provocative writings from CAP. He included blog posts, however, that suggest that Iran may be farther away from a nuclear weapon than is commonly believed, and advocating deterrence as opposed to confrontation.
CAP backs multilateral sanctions against Iran, but opposes efforts to impose sanctions unilaterally. It is the lumping together of criticisms of policy positions with accusations of anti-Semitism that infuriates CAP supporters.
Block, a senior fellow at the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, has said that he is not bothered by being ousted from the Truman Project.
He expresses pride in what he sees as his role in spurring CAP to change.
“I don’t think this is who CAP, its new leadership, or its allies want the organization to be,” Block said. “I hope we will see more meaningful corrective measures in the future.”
JTA Wire Service