When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Ron Dermer as Israel’s ambassador to the United States in 2013, the move was seen as so provocative that aides to the PM were reportedly worried that the White House would balk at the choice. Dermer came with a lot of baggage. An American by birth, he had worked as a Republican operative, helping to draft Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, before emigrating to Israel. There, he eventually became a close political adviser to Netanyahu, while remaining deeply connected in Republican politics in America.
Dermer didn’t fit the prototype of a diplomat, someone who works to transcend the partisan politics back home and assiduously avoids becoming enmeshed in the partisan politics of the country where he is posted. As it was Dermer who reportedly helped organize Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's visit to Israel in the heat of the 2012 campaign, one of the Netanyahu government’s many affronts to the Obama White House, skeptics assumed he would simply continue acting as a partisan political operative.
Although he's worked to dispel that image, a string incidents have raised red flags and were more in line with a political animal who hadn't changed much since assuming his country's most important diplomatic post. For Dermer’s critics, those incidents would turn out to be mere prelude to the dramatic rift in formal US-Israel relations that Dermer would ultimately help trigger in January.
Dermer’s carefully orchestrated effort in cooperation with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to inject Netanyahu into the congressional debate over Iran sanctions with an address to a joint session of Congress just days before elections in Israel -- without any consultation with the White House and State Department as it was planned -- provoked the nastiest public spat in what has been a consistently uneasy relationship between Obama and the prime minister.
"If you had asked me the day before the State of the Union speech, I would have said to you that (Dermer) had overcome a tremendous amount of adversity and was looking real. ... He was getting around and he was talking to everybody," Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, who advised Obama during his 2008 campaign, told TPM. "But then he did this and it either suggests that he decided to go all-in in a game of poker where he could not win, or in fact everything else had been a facade and he didn't learn anything."
In the view of American critics, Dermer is at best a political operative bringing the dark arts of that trade to the world stage, where the stakes are too high and the consequences too severe for petty hardball. At worst, in their view, Dermer represents something far more troubling: a direct reflection of Netanyahu’s own approach to politics and diplomacy.
In the latter perspective, Dermer is channeling Bibi when seizing on American political divisions to advance the prime minister's, and ultimately, his own, political agenda. These critics believe such maneuvering threatens America’s bipartisan support for Israel, as the Dermer legacy would be not merely a monumental misstep with the Netanyahu speech, but an undermining of the American pro-Israel consensus that could no longer be taken for granted.
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