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Liberal think tank should host Netanyahu speech -- that's democracy

Liberal think tank should host Netanyahu speech -- that's democracy
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shown meeting with President Obama on Monday, is scheduled to appear at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday, a talk that has sparked a progressive backlash. It shouldn't. (Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the United States this week for what might be termed a "kiss and make up" tour. He met Monday with President Obama, with whom he has been at odds over issues large and small, not the least of which is the Iranian nuclear deal, the focal point of Netanyahu's highly controversial speech before Congress earlier this year. And he'll be delivering some speeches in Washington before heading back to Israel.

One of those speeches will be before the liberal Center for American Progress think tank on Tuesday, an appearance that has drawn the outrage of progressive critics of Netanyahu and his Israeli-Palestinian policies. In an open letter, 18 organizations and 117 individuals have condemned the Center for American Progress for letting Netanyahu speak, saying that they are "dismayed" that the center will give Netanyahu a forum.

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Of course, the organizations behind the drive -- Jewish Voice for Peace and the Arab American Institute -- and the letter-signers are perfectly within their rights to protest Netanyahu's appearance. They're also within their rights to ask the Center for American Progress to not host Netanyahu. But they're also wrong to do so. Not because I agree with Netanyahu on any of these issues. In fact, that doesn't matter. The problem is this has become yet another instance of a political debate descending into demands that the opposition be silenced.

Dialogue can be difficult. But offering a forum is not the same thing as offering support for the views of a speaker. Foreign Policy reports that many of the center's staff also object to hosting Netanyahu's speech, seeming to reject the center's argument that the event provides them with a good opportunity to question Netanyahu over his policies and actions.

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"The opponents of the event said they doubted the merits of a dialogue given the Netanyahu government's conduct in recent years, particularly in the 2014 Gaza conflict that resulted in the deaths of 2,100 Palestinians and 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel," according to the Foreign Policy piece. "Left-wing critics and humanitarian organizations have long accused Israel of using disproportionate force in bombing raids and policing efforts; Israel and its backers in the U.S. have noted that Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel indiscriminately and operated in crowded civilian areas."

Sounds like exactly the kinds of issues that should be discussed. And not in an echo chamber. This has been a recurring problem in our political discourse -- people hunkering down in their intellectual and political bunkers and refusing to engage in a potentially enlightening conversation. Will Netanyahu have anything to say that the center folks would agree with? Highly unlikely. Will he come out of Tuesday's session with a fresh embrace of a two-state solution? Nope.

But the political world shouldn't be organized like Facebook, where most dialogues seem to be among the like-minded. Netanyahu's appearance (which will be livecast) before an audience of critics is a chance to learn, even if it just affirms views of his policies and actions.

But we learn little, and fail at democracy, when we try to muzzle those with whom we disagree.

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Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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