Israel’s New Man in Washington
Is Ron Dermer too right wing to win friends and influence "allies" in the White House?
There’s a new big macher in town. On Tuesday, July 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially named Ron Dermer to be his next ambassador to Washington, formally bringing current ambassador Michael Oren’s four-year tenure to an end in the fall. In replacing Oren with Dermer (full disclosure: Oren was my professor in graduate school at Harvard University, and we have maintained a good relationship), Netanyahu is replacing one American-turned-Israeli with another, but that is where the similarities end. Dermer will have big shoes to fill, as Oren has done an admirable job as Israel’s ambassador to the United States during a time that has been fraught with potential peril for the special relationship between the two countries. Although Dermer will have some advantages that Oren did not, he also has a history of his own that must be overcome.
While Israeli envoys have traditionally reported to the Foreign Ministry, Oren has been in the unique position of bypassing traditional channels and reporting directly to Netanyahu. This is because Oren didn’t come from within the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and so wasn’t in any way beholden to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But it’s also an indication of how far the Foreign Ministry has fallen out of favor under Netanyahu’s purview. Netanyahu has sidelined the Foreign Ministry and has run Israeli foreign policy directly out of his office, using personal aides for important diplomatic tasks. While some analysts, such as Aaron David Miller, claim that Oren is outside Netanyahu’s inner circle and thus has had a diminished role, there is no doubt that the outgoing ambassador has played a crucial role in serving as a critical communicator between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.
One need only look at the results of the past four years to see how well Oren has comported himself in his position. During Obama’s and Netanyahu’s respective first terms, all manner of analysts were predicting an Israeli strike on Iran and a policy of unfettered settlement building, both of which were going to lead to terrible clashes between Washington and Jerusalem. Indeed, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed during a trip to Israel by a surprise announcement of new building in East Jerusalem, the immediate fallout was swift. Yet the fears over Iran and exploding settlement growth were never realized, and the actual working relationship between the United States and Israel is as strong as it has ever been in terms of security cooperation and coordination. One has to assume that Oren has played a key role in all this by communicating to the Israeli government the mood in Washington and the dangers inherent in moving unilaterally against Iran or sabotaging the peace process.
One of the Israeli ambassador’s primary tasks is making sure that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is as smooth as possible, and not only is the institutional relationship humming along, but the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has immeasurably improved over time. During Obama’s first term, low points included Netanyahu publicly lecturing the U.S. president while the cameras were rolling during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in May 2011, and Obama later returning the favor by denigrating Netanyahu over an open microphone while talking privately to then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In contrast, during Obama’s trip to Israel this past March, the two men joked with each other, smiled, and seemed far more comfortable than they ever had before. Although the credit for this cannot be laid entirely at Oren’s feet, one should not overlook his part in it either after four years of his public insistence that Obama and Netanyahu have a solid working relationship.
The other major task that an Israeli ambassador has is serving as a representative to the American Jewish community, and in this Oren has been peerless. Aside from speaking perfect, American-accented English (as befitting someone who was born and raised in New Jersey and has degrees from Columbia and Princeton universities), Oren is uncommonly eloquent and erudite, with a gift for public speaking. On college campuses and in synagogues of all denominations, Oren is an extremely popular figure, and he has pushed the Israeli government on issues important to American Jews, such as resolving the controversy over the Women of the Wall prayer group seeking to hold female egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall. He is also a talented communicator in the mass media to the wider American public on subjects concerning Israel’s security and interests, and he has done yeoman’s work in explaining and defending Israeli government positions. Given Oren’s street cred as a popular, respected historian and someone whose publicly stated views before his appointment as ambassador tended to be more dovish than Netanyahu’s, Dermer is going to be fighting an uphill battle to match Oren’s esteemed reputation and effectiveness as an advocate for his country.
Like Oren, Dermer is no stranger to the United States, having grown up in Florida in a locally prominent political family (his father and brother both served as mayor of Miami Beach). Dermer went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and became involved in Republican politics before moving to Israel in 1996 and going to work for politician Natan Sharansky and then Netanyahu. But unlike Oren, Dermer has a history with the Obama administration that must be overcome. Whether the charge is true or not, there is a widespread perception that Dermer was behind a covert campaign on Netanyahu’s part to support Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. This means that despite having the complete confidence of Netanyahu — which is the prime motivating factor behind his appointment — Dermer walks into a situation of immediate distrust and suspicion when it comes to the administration and Democrats in Washington. His history of working for political consultant Frank Luntz and the Republican Party won’t help. In addition, where Oren is generally viewed as smoothly diplomatic, Dermer has a reputation for abrasiveness. His December 2011 letter to the New York Times explaining Netanyahu’s refusal to write an op-ed for the newspaper’s prestigious opinion section, while red meat to Israel’s more hawkish supporters, is not the type of communication that will win him friends in the White House or make it easier for him to work with administration officials.
The flip side is that, in some ways, Dermer is set up to succeed in a way that Oren never was. Aside from his deep connections all over Washington from his time working under Luntz and his stint in the mid-2000s as the man in charge of economic affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Dermer also has lots of firsthand experience with the upper echelons of the Obama administration, having served as Netanyahu’s top aide and right-hand man for the last four years and heavily participating in diplomatic discussions between the two countries. Dermer also benefits from an extraordinarily close relationship with Netanyahu, which allows him to speak with an authority that is unusual: There is no daylight between him and the prime minister. Any need there may have been in the past for back channels — a role that previously would have been filled by Dermer himself — will be entirely eliminated with Dermer at the helm.
Perhaps most of all, Dermer will benefit from a new environment on the peace process front. Netanyahu has demonstrated a willingness to be more pragmatic on the two-state solution since his re-election in January, and it is possible that he has reached a tipping point on wanting to negotiate in earnest with the Palestinians. It will make Dermer’s job a lot easier if the next year or two sees Israel cooperating with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s fervent efforts to bring both parties back to the bargaining table with a renewed push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Rather than having to deflect and mollify the White House’s anger at Netanyahu’s intransigence, Dermer might find himself on the receiving end of a much sunnier reception from the Obama administration. Paradoxically, it’ll be easier for Dermer to play the bad cop on occasion when it comes to peace process specifics if his government has built up a reservoir of goodwill by making concessions requested by Washington. Even if Dermer has been viewed in the past as an obstacle to a two-state solution by arguing against it at every turn, events may be overtaking that reputation by making it irrelevant.
Dermer may not have the same diplomatic tact or communications deftness as Oren, but his strong relationship with Netanyahu and events beyond his control might be all that he needs to be successful. If he can transition from his current mode of looking out first and foremost for his boss’s interests to looking out for Israel’s interests as a whole — and there is no reason to think that he can’t — he will be primed for a successful stint as Netanyahu’s man in Washington. While Israel is about to lose its most talented English-language spokesman, the blow will feel less acute if Dermer is able to use his advantages to Israel’s favor.