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.
Heather Reed/Speaker John Boehner’s Office/Flickr
Politico Magazine reported in the days before Dermer became ambassador that the White House and congressional Democrats were already suspicious of him, alleging that he had been undermining the international negotiations with Iran by distributing negative talking points to Capitol Hill offices. According to the New York Times, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, among others, had initially resisted the appointment.
“The naming of Dermer is a statement that manipulation, with a hard-right twist, of American politics is not just something that arises from time to time in U.S.-Israeli relations but instead is the main aspect of the relationship,” Paul Pillar, a longtime CIA analyst, wrote in the National Interest. “It also is a statement by Netanyahu that he isn’t bothered if the relationship is seen that way.”
For those who were skeptical of Dermer’s appointment from the outset, the current speech debacle is no surprise. They say they had seen the political side of Dermer, dubbed “Bibi’s Brain” in a 2011 profile by Tablet magazine, persist since he assumed the post. He made an infamous appearance at billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson’s partisan political event in March 2014 — officially the Republican Jewish Coalition Spring Leadership Meeting, but unofficially an opportunity for 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls to court one of the party’s most powerful donors. The incident elicited a widely reported wisecrack from White House national security adviser Susan Rice (one that the White House denied publicly) about why she had reportedly not met with Dermer: “I understood that he’s too busy traveling to Sheldon Adelson’s events in Las Vegas.”
Multiple sources also told TPM of a previously-unreported, private meeting that Dermer attended in June 2014 at the liberal Center for American Progress to dispel the concerns that Dermer’s appointment raised. CAP is the most influential liberal think tank in Washington and has close ties to the White House. The group had invited Dermer’s predecessors to similar events, and wanted to give Dermer the same opportunity. The think tank’s top officials and former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL), who is Jewish and now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, were in attendance.
Those familiar with the meeting were reluctant to talk about it on the
record, but their recollections to TPM made clear that what had been intended as a mutual outreach effort clearly went very badly. One described Dermer’s tone as a lecture “on how things are and what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel.”
Dermer and Wexler eventually got into a heated conversation, portrayed by one source as outright shouting, over Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Wexler has said previously that the Jewish state should freeze settlements, a position at odds with the Netanyahu government.
“The tenor of it was basically, ‘Nobody should be criticizing anything that Israel is doing,'” one source said of Dermer’s stance at the meeting.
Or take the case of J Street. Dermer has completely shut out the liberal Jewish group that advocates for a two-state solution, after the organization said it had developed a working relationship with Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren. The group’s leaders had regularly attended the Israeli embassy’s Hanukkah party and often met with its diplomats when Oren was in charge, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami told TPM. That stopped under Dermer. “It is the kind of petty politics that really do not serve the best interests of Israel,” he said. “It is just another example of turning the embassy into a political apparatus.”
Still, one senior Democratic congressional aide was shocked by that perception of Dermer because of how he had conducted himself on Capitol Hill since taking over as ambassador — at least prior to his helping engineer Boehner’s invitation.
Andrew Harrer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Rumors had persisted that he met exclusively or at least far more frequently with Republican leadership. But that wasn’t true, the senior Democratic aide told TPM. Dermer took great pains to consult both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. One oft-cited story that he met only with Republicans before officially giving his ambassador credentials to the White House is a myth, the aide said. Democratic leaders were in attendance as well.
“Until [the speech invitation], I thought that Ambassador Dermer was doing an excellent job of keeping things bipartisan,” the aide said shortly after the news of Netanyahu’s speech. “I think that the reason that this was so shocking was that Dermer had played the bipartisan part.”
Dermer clearly knows that the Boehner invitation and subsequent backlash from congressional Democrats is now an enormous problem, politically and diplomatically. He reached out to Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), with whom he has had a friendly relationship, to arrange a meeting , another Democratic aide told TPM. Israel agreed to meet with Dermer on Capitol Hill and invited six other Jewish Democrats in the House to attend as well.
They met in Israel’s Rayburn House Office Building office, talking over coffee and Dunkin Donut Munchkins for about an hour. The exact details of the conversation are a closely guarded secret, but the members said that they were “very disappointed that Israel is being used as a political football,” the aide told TPM.
“The goal of the meeting was to diffuse the situation,” the aide said. Whether it succeeded, though, is unclear. Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson, not the most likely source of Dermer criticism, said this week that he had been told that Dermer “alienated” congressional Democrats in reference to Dermer’s recent meetings on Capitol Hill.
“I think there’s a lot of blame to go around. I do think there is a problem with the Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer,” Carlson said on Fox News. “Israel, and our relationship with Israel, is not being well served by the ambassador to the United States from Israel. And that’s just a shame.”
The Israeli embassy in Washington said that Dermer was unavailable for an interview. They directed TPM to an interview that the ambassador gave to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as the speech controversy escalated. “I know that people are trying to turn this into a personal or a partisan issue, but for Israel, it is neither,” Dermer said. “It is about an issue that affects the fate of the country.”
The White House has been officially diplomatic about the ambassador, but a senior official made the administration’s thinking clear to the New York Times. It’s not the first time an administration official has taken anonymous shots at the Netanyahu government — one memorably called Netanyahu “a chickenshit” in an interview with Goldberg last year. The official told the Times that Dermer has “repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States,” as the newspaper paraphrased their comments.
The political element — Israeli elections are being held March 17, two weeks after the speech — is unavoidable. Those familiar with internal Israeli politics generally agree that it benefits Netanyahu to be seen as an international statesman who receives a rousing reception when he speaks before Congress. The speech by design coincides with AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington, which typically features a wide array of speeches from US politicans on both sides of the aisle. However, the White House has said that Obama won’t meet with the prime minister when he comes, and neither will Secretary of State John Kerry. Vice President Joe Biden will not be attending the speech either, his office announced, explaining that Biden had unspecified travel plans. Democrats in Congress continue to weigh boycotting the speech, and several have already committed to skipping it. In response, a Republican Jewish group has promised to publicize those who “put partisan politics ahead of principle and walk out on the prime minister of Israel,” as a top official put it.
Further illustrating the well-documented breakdown between Netanyahu and Obama: Though Boehner’s office has insisted that the speaker initiated the invitation to speak to Congress with Dermer and instructed him not to tell Kerry about the invitation when Dermer met with Kerry the day before it was announced, Hareetz has reported that White House officials believe Dermer had helped concoct the idea and convinced Netanyahu to go along with it. White House officials, according to Hareetz, even believe that Dermer had convinced the prime minister that Congress could muster a two-thirds vote to override Obama’s promised veto on new Iran sanctions. Other senior Israeli officials have since indicated they still believe that’s possible.
Dermer has insisted that Netanyahu had a “sacred duty” to speak out on Iran as an existential threat to Israel, which Netanyahu has repeatedly made a top national security issue. Dermer also said that the speech was not intended as an insult to Obama, though the White House called Boehner’s invitation without consulting the administration a breach of diplomatic protocol.
“Now there may be some people who believe that the Prime Minister of Israel should have declined an invitation to speak before the most powerful parliament in the world on an issue that concerns the future and survival of Israel,” Dermer said at an event in Florida shortly after Boehner’s invitation became public. “But we have learned from our history that the world becomes a more dangerous place for the Jewish people when the Jewish people are silent.”
“That is why the Prime Minister feels the deepest moral obligation to appear before the Congress to speak about an existential issue facing the one and only Jewish state,” he continued. “This is not just the right of the Prime Minister of Israel. It is his most sacred duty — to do whatever he can to prevent Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons that can be aimed at Israel.”
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The Brooking Institution’s Natan Sachs, a leading expert on Israeli and Middle Eastern issues, told TPM that he isn’t certain Dermer and Netanyahu are intentionally trying to make Israel a partisan issue in the US. He said it cannot be overstated how important Netanyahu, like the Israeli public, believes it is to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu might genuinely feel desperate enough to flout diplomatic norms and he has a real substantive disagreement with Obama over the Iranian negotiations. But that doesn’t stop the perception that he and Dermer were playing partisan games — or that Dermer’s background as a Republican and as a political operative put the prime minister in this position.
“One of the dangers is it exacerbates an already starting trend, which is the partisan issue,” Sachs said. “Because if it appears that he’s siding with Republicans in Congress against the administration, and it does to many, that further exacerbates the point that Israel may be becoming a Republican issue.”
It might not be a conscious effort by Netanyahu and Dermer, he said, but their worldview does inevitably line up more with neoconservatives than with Obama. Dermer’s ties to American conservatism are well known. A column he wrote for the Jerusalem Post was routinely critical of peace talks with the Palestinians.
“Slowly but surely, a mounting conviction that time is no longer on our side is sapping our national will. The current peace process has done much to contribute to our national ‘malaise,'” Dermer wrote in March 2001, per Tablet. In his speech defending Netanyahu’s address to Congress, he described Israelis and Jews as “a people who have survived all the evil that history has thrown at us.”
“We will survive the evil that we face today,” he said. “But we will not do it by bowing our heads and by hoping that the storm will pass. We will do it by standing tall and by confronting the storm with faith and courage.”
The inevitable policy prescriptions that follow from that worldview — a skepticism of peace with the Palestinians and absolutism on Iran — have helped drive the Netanyahu government away from the White House and toward Republicans.
“It’s not that they want Israel to be a Republican thing,” Sachs said. “But it is true that on issues that they care about dramatically, especially Iran, they are trying to use anything they can because they see this as a fundamental historical issue for Israel. Right or wrong, that’s how they see it. So it is true that they are trying to utilize anything they can, and it is not coincidental that they have many allies on the Republican side, given their history and where they come from.”
Even if Netanyahu and Dermer’s intentions were motivated by substantive differences, Iran has nevertheless “become almost a partisan issue,” Brandon Friedman, a Tel Aviv University professor who has closely tracked the international negotiations, told TPM.
“I think the intention of the prime minister and the Israeli ambassador to the United States was to get the proper stage for Israel to make its argument,” Friedman said. “Clearly, the way it’s played out has taken the spotlight away from the issue where we would prefer to have it. No doubt that the sequence of events has not played out favorably.”
Others stress that Israel still is, in almost every meaningful way, a bipartisan issue and point out that the military and intelligence apparatuses continue to work well together. Aaron Miller, a former top State Department official who is now at the Wilson Center, said that the latest flap is more than result of the personal discord between Obama and Netanyahu, which he called “the most dysfunctional relationship I’ve ever seen.” Only if Democrats uniformly boycotted Netanyahu’s speech — as some individual members say that they will — would it suggest any real fundamental change in the bipartisan agreement on Israel.
“That ain’t gonna happen,” Miller said. “What that says to me, regardless of predilection, the Republicans and the Democrats are going to react uniformly when it comes to supporting Israel.”
But the Democratic disdain for the speech that Boehner, Dermer and Netanyahu have cooked up is real. The relationship between the two heads of states may be irreparable. And even with the generally more hawkish Democrats on the Hill, the senior Democratic aide told TPM that it’s going to take some serious work to repair that rift.
“It’s going to take more than a member of Congress going to Israel to move forward on this,” the aide said. “We have short memories here in Washington, but this is just a pretty big shock.”
(Lead photo: CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)