Ambassador Ron Dermer has just taken the biggest risk of his short diplomatic career.
As Israel’s envoy to Washington, Dermer would ordinarily be the man behind the scenes promoting his state’s most important foreign relationship. But the Israeli diplomat is now at center stage — both praised and reviled as the key player who, with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, planned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise visit to address Congress shortly before national elections in Israel, circumventing a miffed President Obama.
The administration’s outrage at Dermer’s actions was underlined when an unnamed “senior administration official” allowed himself (or herself) to be cited–though not directly quoted–accusing Dermer of having, in the Times’ paraphrase, “repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States.”
For his part, Dermer told the Times, “I have no regrets whatsoever that I have acted in a way to advance my country’s interests.”
Such exchanges between an administration and a foreign envoy, in which the diplomat himself is the issue, are rare, if not unprecedented in Washington diplomacy. But then Dermer is no ordinary diplomat.
A political appointee chosen personally by Netanyahu, Dermer, who immigrated to Israel from America in his mid 20s, has a long history of close ties to the Republican Party. Soon after his arrival, in fact, he tried to pre-empt suspicions that this would affect his mission of representing the state to leaders and lawmakers from both parties.
“There were people who thought I was going to play politics, that I was going to rally Congress, Republicans,” he told The New York Times last year. “But I was confident that after I got here, after I worked for a few months, they would understand that I was here to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
So far it hasn’t worked out that way.
To the Republicans’ delight, Netanyahu is widely expected to disagree with the Obama administration’s approach to diplomatic negotiations with Iran. In particular, the prime minister disagrees with an interim agreement that calls for Iran to substantially slow down its development of nuclear capabilities in exchange for some benefits while talks take place on a permanent pact to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.
Soon after Boehner announced Netanyahu’s visit, which will take place in March, just two weeks before he faces a national election in Israel, administration officials singled out Dermer for his role. The ambassador, administration officials told reporters, sat for two hours with Secretary of State John Kerry the day before the visit was announced, but neglected to mention a word about it to America’s top diplomat.
The administration was informed just hours before the announcement. And congressional Democratic leaders said they had not been consulted, strongly rebutting Boehner’s claim that the invitation was a bipartisan one.
But Dermer did not come to Washington to play nice with the Obama administration.
A Florida native who has became one of Netanyahu’s top confidants, Dermer was known earlier as the aide who engineered Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel and his photo op with Netanyahu as Romney was running on the GOP ticket against Obama in 2012. More recently, Dermer raised eyebrows when he appeared as a high-profile speaker at a gathering of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, convened by Sheldon Adelson, the American Jewish casino billionaire who was the party’s single largest donor in the 2012 race against Obama.
Such behavior has not gone unnoticed. When asked why she doesn’t meet more often with the Israel envoy, Susan Rice, Obama’s top national security adviser, reportedly said,“I understood that he’s too busy traveling to Sheldon Adelson’s events in Las Vegas.”
Yet though relations between Washington and Jerusalem are hitting historic lows, snubbing the president and his team, while costly here, could benefit Dermer back home. “He is doing the dirty work for Netanyahu, and he will get rewarded for it,” said an Israeli politician close to the ruling Likud party.
Dermer, whose father and brother served as mayors of Miami Beach, both as Democrats, became active in Republican politics after college under the tutelage of GOP pollster Frank Luntz. He moved to Israel at the age of 26 and began working on the political campaign of Soviet refusenik turned Israeli politician Natan Sharansky. He then grew close to Netanyahu, served as his economic attaché in Washington and came back to Israel to become the prime minister’s top foreign policy adviser.
Dermer’s image of partisanship is not limited to his perceived ties to the Republicans. As a diplomat, he is charged with representing Israel abroad without politically favoring any one of the state’s personalities or parties in a partisan context. But he was recently reprimanded by Israel’s Civil Service Commission for backing Netanyahu’s re-election in a statement on American television in his capacity as ambassador.
Dermer’s role in the current imbroglio began on January 8, only a day after Boehner was re-elected as House Speaker. Boehner reportedly phoned Dermer then and suggested they move ahead with a previously discussed idea of inviting Netanyahu to speak before a joint meeting of Congress. Dermer finalized the details with both sides and kept the entire plan a secret until Boehner announced it on January 21.
That was the day after President Obama’s State of the Union speech, and the move appeared to be Boehner’s answer to Obama’s threat to veto an Iran sanctions bill being pushed by Republicans and some Democrats even as the talks with Iran were ongoing.
A few commentators defended the move orchestrated by Dermer and Boehner. Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams argued, in his Council on Foreign Relations blog, that the White House’s “whining” is “amateurish” and that the president wants to “silence Netanyahu” and prevent him from speaking out on Iran.
But Daniel Kurtzer, who served as America’s ambassador to Egypt and to Israel during the tenure of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Forward bluntly: “This is conduct unbecoming of an ambassador. I can’t even begin to imagine that when the United States had differences with the Sharon government during my tenure as ambassador, they’d tell me to conspire with [the opposition party] Labor behind his back. It’s unthinkable.”
In Israel, Dermer’s immediate predecessor, Michael Oren, who was also personally chosen by Netanyahu, has called for the prime minister’s trip to be canceled. And Danny Ayalon, a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington and was later deputy foreign minister, called Dermer’s conduct “definitely something unusual.” Ayalon told the Forward that when he was ambassador, he would begin planning each visit of the prime minister with a meeting with the president as the starting point and would then build around that.
Speaking to a gathering of Israel Bonds activists in Florida on January 25, Dermer stuck to his guns, defending Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to Congress. “This is not just the right of the prime minister of Israel, it is his most sacred duty,” Dermer said, “to do whatever he can to prevent Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons that can be aimed at Israel.” The ambassador invoked the Holocaust as an example of an event in which Jews did not have an ability to speak out. Netanyahu’s visit, he argued, “is not intended to show any disrespect for President Obama.” But he offered no explanation for keeping the White House in the dark on the visit.
The Obama administration, at least officially, has chosen not to address Dermer directly. “I’ll let Secretary Kerry or maybe even Ambassador Dermer explain why that occurred the way it did,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told Fox News. “The president’s view is, this relationship is in the national interest.”
Official punitive measures against Dermer, while permitted by diplomatic protocol, are not being discussed. But Kurtzer, who now teaches at Princeton University, said there are many other ways for the Obama administration to show its dissatisfaction with him. “They could simply deal him out,” Kurtzer said, “effectively telling him: ‘You want to represent Israel to the Republican Party? Good luck. We’ll work with other people.’ And then he becomes a wounded ambassador.”
But Ayalon believes there is still a way out.
“You need some creativity,” said Ayalon, who is now the Rennert visiting professor at Yeshiva University. “You can pick up the phone to Kerry and apologize, you can suggest they invite leaders of the opposition. It’s not rocket science.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman