Diplomacy, Remedial Edition

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January 30, 2015 1:33 p.m.

Last night, I flagged a press release from House Speaker John Boehner’s office in which – inter alia – Boehner says he told Israeli Ambassador Dermer not to inform the White House or the State Department about the speech to Congress Dermer and Boehner’s staff were planning. Dermer, according to Boehner, acknowledged the correctness of the request and agreed. Now Dermer himself is speaking. And he back up Boehner’s account.

From Jeff Goldberg’s just published interview with Dermer …

It was also made clear to me that it was the speaker’s responsibility and normal protocol for the Speaker’s office to notify the administration of the invitation. That is why I felt it would be inappropriate for me to raise the issue with the administration, including in my meeting with the secretary of state, until the speaker notified them.

This is just demonstrably silly for anyone who is passingly familiar with commonsense or diplomatic protocol. And let’s press the point a bit further. Dermer is not someone born in a Polish shtetl who’s spent his life farming on a Kibbutz in the Galilee or a sabra working the same fields. He’s not a recent immigrant from Russia who’s lived the last twenty years in Tel Aviv or Ashdod. Not only was Dermer born and raised in the United States. He began his career as a Republican political operative before emigrating to Israel. He actually worked with Frank Luntz on Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’! He’s very familiar with partisan and DC politics in the United States. There’s just no plausible back story or explanation that would make such a lapse of knowledge or judgment remotely plausible.

Here’s what I see: Some combination of Dermer, Boehner and Netanyahu saw an opportunity, one that could serve each of their own needs as well as addressing goals that overlapped between the two. At a fundamental level, I think Netanyahu and Dermer misjudged the reaction. And I think for a few reasons.

First, I think they misjudged the stiffness of Obama’s spine on Iran versus the Israel-Palestine conflict. To my great chagrin, fairly early on, Obama decided the Palestinian issue was just not a vital issue for the US, not something that was worth it for him or the country to put everything on the line. Once early in Obama’s administration I got a chance to ask him whether he didn’t think that giving way to Netanyahu’s refusal to halt or limit settlement expansion might have bad effects on Obama’s own credibility in the conflict and for the possible of a future settlement in the future. He did not have a good or satisfying answer.

Obama sees Iran in very different terms. He won’t be pushed around nearly so easily. I think Dermer and Netanyahu didn’t grasp that difference.

Second, Obama’s not running again. He doesn’t care in the same way. He’s also – for a number of reasons – moving up in the polls. He’s not as politically vulnerable as he was through most of 2014, both because of his increasing public support and not needing to run again.

Finally, I think they just misjudged how much this was a step too far even for some of their allies in the US. Sure, the hardcore Iran hawks and Netanyahu acolytes are saying it’s awesome. But it’s cast a pall way across the political spectrum. At a basic level they didn’t get that – and not getting that stems in part from misjudging points one and two.

If Obama had knuckled under quickly he would have validated Netanyahu’s move, removing the issue of meddling in US politics and adding to the impression of Netanyahu’s strength. It would have been a win for Netanyahu on a number of levels. That did not happen. And now Dermer, Boehner and even Netanyahu are stuck making silly excuses about how they really did’t know Obama would mind and didn’t care that the move would actually backfire and reduce the odds of passage of their favored Iran sanctions bill. They misjudged the situation. But since they can’t admit that they’re caught out offering implausible explanations that make it clear this is a situation they did not expect to be in.

So Dermer claims that it’s not that he breached diplomatic protocol and involved himself in a partisan ploy in the host country for some unique and overriding high purpose. He claims, on the contrary, that he was just too ignorant or too incompetent to know what was happening.

That’s not a very good explanation. And if it’s true, it’s even worse.

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