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Israel’s effort on the Hill to stop the interim deal with Iran and to increase sanctions pressure on Iran while negotiations continue has included several elements. As ambassador, Dermer has been in charge of daily contacts with members of Congress, both personally and through other embassy staff members.
Visiting Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, have added their own input to the debate. And Netanyahu, in public speeches and private discussions, has set the impassioned public tone and framed the differences Israel and the United States have regarding the deal.
At the root of these differences, Israelis say, is Jerusalem’s insistence on preventing Iran from having any nuclear capability; Jerusalem has made a demand that Iran dismantle its nuclear enrichment capacity completely. Washington, however, is willing to settle for strict limits on that capacity and for stringent monitoring protocols so as to prevent Iran from using its facilities to develop nuclear weapons.
But much of Israel’s messaging, delivered by Dermer and other officials, has been seen as an attempt to challenge the information provided to lawmakers by the administration. In one instance, Steinitz told reporters that the sanctions relief offered to Iran would amount to $40 billion. The Obama administration strongly refuted this figure, arguing that it would be less than a quarter of this amount.
In another case, Mark Kirk, a Republican senator, confronted Kerry in a closed-door meeting with information he had received from Israeli officials earlier that day, disputing the administration’s claim that a deal would set back Iran’s nuclear program significantly. The exchange reportedly prompted Kerry to urge senators not to listen to the Israelis.
Dermer, according to Israeli sources in Jerusalem and Washington, intends to remain a close adviser to Netanyahu even when serving as ambassador. He accompanied Netanyahu during his visit to Washington in late September and has since attended two meetings the prime minister held with Kerry, one in Jerusalem and one in Rome.
The two consult frequently, and Dermer is viewed by the prime minister as his top adviser, albeit not an official one, on relations with the United States. This closeness could add to Dermer’s prestige in Israel and could lead, according to congressional sources, to greater appreciation of him in Washington, since he is known to have the ear of the Israeli leader. That makes him different from several of his predecessors, whom Israeli leaders bypassed to deal directly and personally with senior American officials.
Although the administration seems to have the upper hand in the battle over imposing new sanctions against Iran before the six month period of the interim agreement expires, the debate is far from finished. During the weekend, battle lines have been drawn in the Senate, as Democrats seemed poised to agree that new sanctions would only be rolled out if Iran fails to meet its obligations during the six month interim period, and Republicans pushing for immediate measures. In the long process still ahead, Dermer’s role as the key provider of Israel’s input on the debate is not expected to diminish.