The Partisan Politics of Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S.
Explaining its June 24 decision to extend Ron Dermer’s post as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, DC for yet another year, the Israeli government cited “unique political circumstances” as the key reason for taking this unusual step. Dermer will now remain for his sixth year as ambassador, longer than most other Israeli diplomats in recent history. And while the uniqueness of the moment in Israeli-American relations could be debated, there is no debate Dermer offers a unique approach to the position as Israel’s top man in Washington.
Dermer, 47, is unique in the access he enjoys to corridors of power and in his closeness to Republican lawmakers and administration officials. As such, he presides over Israeli diplomacy at a golden age in which, at least for now, every request from Jerusalem seems to be immediately fulfilled by Washington.
But Dermer’s uniqueness has come with a price. What the Netanyahu government celebrates as beneficial relations with the political party in power, Democrats, and many in the Jewish communal world who align with the Democratic Party, see as partisanship, which is leaving them out. “It’s not only the disagreement over the Iran deal,” said a Jewish Democratic donor who referred to Dermer’s role in trying to undermine the Iranian nuclear agreement during the Obama presidency. “It’s him being so overt about it.”
The claim of partisanship has haunted Dermer ever since he took office in 2013, as Netanyahu’s representative to Barack Obama’s Washington. Relations between the Obama administration and Netanyahu started off bad and became worse by the day, with Dermer right in the middle. To be clear, Dermer is not a career diplomat, thrust against his better judgement into the center of a power struggle between his homeland and the country he is credentialed to. Dermer was Netanyahu’s top policy adviser, especially on issues relating to U.S.-Israel relations, and he still spends much of his time advising the prime minister, by phone from Washington or in his frequent visits to Jerusalem. If Israel chose to escalate relations with the Obama administration, it was as much of Dermer’s work as it was Netanyahu’s.
Democrats suspected Dermer from the start, and pointed to the role he played in organizing Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel before the 2012 elections as proof that he was rooting for one side in the race. Then came the 2015 debate over the Iranian nuclear deal, with Dermer at the forefront of the war launched by Netanyahu against the plan. He orchestrated the prime minister’s May 3, 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress, a move carried out behind the back of the White House and aimed at swaying lawmakers against Obama’s deal.
For Democrats and Obama administration officials, Dermer became the face of Israeli defiance, and of the Netanyahu government’s partisan approach to American politics. Some spoke of him as a “practically persona non grata” among senior policymakers, and doors to top officials were slammed shut in his face.
Dermer was effectively cut out of White House policy circles and was forced to watch from the sidelines as the U.S. and its allies signed and implemented the historic nuclear deal. But his resilience paid off. By November 2016, as America and the world watched with disbelief the election victory of Donald Trump, Dermer felt vindicated. His amity with Republicans and his willingness to stand up to Obama did not go unnoticed by the Trump team.
Dermer was quick to forge a relationship with Jared Kushner, Trump’s Jewish son-in-law who would later become his top adviser and Middle East peace pointman. According to a new book about the Trump family, Trump’s 2016 AIPAC speech was based on Dermer’s talking points, conveyed through Kushner. After the elections, Dermer was among the first visitors hosted by the transition team at Trump Tower. He hoped to use his ties to enlist the incoming president and his advisors in an effort to block a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement activity. The Obama administration, in its final days, was poised to allow the resolution to pass—and Dermer hoped that Trump, Kushner and Michael Flynn could reach out to member states and convince them to vote against it. Trump’s team tried and failed, and Kushner and Flynn’s efforts to help Dermer are now part of the Russia investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
When Trump entered the White House, the Israeli ambassador found an open door to the president’s advisers and to the National Security Council—though at least once, according to a New Yorker account, he overstepped his role and was bluntly called out. “This is our fuckin’ house,” one official reportedly reminded Dermer.
Dermer was born in Miami Beach, Florida, where his father and brother served as mayors running on a Democratic ticket. Just like Trump, he graduated from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, but unlike the president, he continued to Oxford University. An Orthodox Jew, Dermer made aliyah to Israel in 1996, where he became close to right-wing leaders Natan Sharansky and Netanyahu and served as their political consultant. His first stint in Washington came in 2005, as an economic attaché, when Netanyahu served as finance minister. He returned to Israel to become a close adviser to Netanyahu. In 2013 he was sent to Washington again, this time as head of Israel’s diplomatic mission.
Spending most of his life in the U.S., deeply immersed in American politics, helped Dermer quickly fill the position left vacant by his predecessor, Michael Oren. His reputation as extremely close to Netanyahu made Dermer a valuable contact for top American officials seeking to send a message to his boss, or to get a whiff of the mood in Jerusalem.
Dermer has not been blind to accusations that he is too partisan for the job, and he made efforts to reach out to Democrats after the Iran deal controversy. He held a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, many of whom boycotted Netanyahu’s speech, and delivered an address at the inaugural event of the Jewish Democratic Council of America last year, telling a roomful of Jewish Democratic leaders that Israel views them as a “strategic asset” and that ““you cannot fly a plane with one wing.”
To a certain extent, these efforts have borne fruit. Despite threats of excommunication from Democratic circles, members of the party hold regular meetings with Dermer. And while they might still hold a grudge, working relations have returned to normal. Former members of the Obama team are the exception. They have not forgiven Dermer and still keep their distance, though being outside the circle of influence makes their protest largely symbolic.
But for Jewish liberals, who, after all, make up the majority of the community, Dermer’s political bend is sorely noticed. They’ve noted that his Rosh Hashanah reception at the ambassador’s residence is dominated by Republicans and that Democratic members of Congress were hard to find at the Israeli Independence Day reception this May. Dermer, said a prominent Democratic activist, skipped Obama’s speech at the Conservative Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, and he has broken with the tradition of giving talks at area synagogues during the High Holidays. This, however, may have to do with the fact that Dermer doesn’t drive on Shabbat and prefers to walk to a small Chabad synagogue close to his home. Another communal activist added that while Dermer seemed attentive to their complaints regarding religious pluralism in Israel, he was not willing, or able, to sway Netanyahu on decisions relating to an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall and the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.
“We know where he stands politically, but that’s not what that matters,” said a Jewish Democratic activist who had maintained personal ties with previous ambassadors. “The ambassador of Israel needs to show American Jews that he cares about us, too—even if we can’t agree on politics.”
This, however, may not happen in Dermer’s term, which will now stretch into 2019.