Report

The Man in the Middle of Obama’s Showdown With Netanyahu

Israel's ambassador to the United States is so close to his boss that he's called "Bibi's brain," but is Ron Dermer doing more harm than good?

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28:  Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer addresses Jewish organizational and community leaders during the 'National Leadership Assembly for Israel' at the National Press Club July 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the event was addressed by Obama Administration officials and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress who attended the rally as a 'show of solidarity with the people and state of Israel.' Despite international calls for a ceasefire, Israel and Hamas continue to battle in and around the Gaza Strip, where 1,000 people have been killed since the violence started 21 days ago.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer addresses Jewish organizational and community leaders during the 'National Leadership Assembly for Israel' at the National Press Club July 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the event was addressed by Obama Administration officials and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress who attended the rally as a 'show of solidarity with the people and state of Israel.' Despite international calls for a ceasefire, Israel and Hamas continue to battle in and around the Gaza Strip, where 1,000 people have been killed since the violence started 21 days ago. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The White House’s simmering anger at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has erupted into a series of increasingly personal attacks on the Israeli leader, with National Security Advisor Susan Rice labeling Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to a joint session of Congress “destructive” to the U.S.-Israeli relationship and Secretary of State John Kerry publicly mocking the Israeli prime minister for having supported the invasion of Iraq.

In normal times, Israel’s ambassador to the United States would have tried to limit the damage by reaching out to allies on Capitol Hill, defending his boss on the cable news networks, and setting up emergency meetings with senior White House aides designed to reassure them that Israel wasn’t trying to sabotage the nuclear deal with Iran that is Obama’s top foreign-policy priority.

These are not normal times, however, and Israel’s current ambassador, Ron Dermer, is markedly different from his predecessors. Dermer wasn’t even in Washington while the firestorm erupted; he was back home in Israel, working on drafts of the speech with Netanyahu, who is locked in a fierce re-election fight. Some U.S. officials believe that Netanyahu, a political junkie like Dermer, is picking the fight with the White House to boost his prospects back home. Recent polls show Netanyahu losing ground to his chief rival, Isaac Herzog, who has loudly condemned the Israeli leader for his planned speech to Congress.

Dermer’s presence at Netanyahu’s side — and his absence from Washington during a historic low point in the relationship between the two allies — highlights the fact that the Florida native serves more like a consigliere to his boss than a traditional ambassador, leaving Israel’s most important overseas diplomatic post in the hands of a man known for his decidedly undiplomatic approach to politics. Dermer, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.

The nominal cause of the current controversy is the speech Netanyahu is set to deliver on Capitol Hill Tuesday at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. The Israeli leader didn’t consult with the White House before accepting Boehner’s request, a diplomatic snub that infuriated Obama and his top aides. Although the exact circumstances of their communications remain murky, Dermer almost certainly functioned as the key intermediary between Boehner and Netanyahu. The Israeli leader will be getting what he wants — a high-profile chance to press his case against a nuclear deal with Iran to the very lawmakers who would one day have to approve or reject its key terms — but only after doing potentially irreparable damage to his relationship with the president. And Dermer, the man charged with preserving Jerusalem’s ties to Washington, may have instead allowed them to deteriorate to one of their lowest points ever.

“Ron’s a brilliant man, but he genuinely doesn’t seem to understand how angry people are about this,” said a Democratic lawmaker who speaks to Dermer regularly and insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivities surrounding the Israeli leader’s upcoming speech. “It’s forcing people who are otherwise pro-Israel to have to decide between sitting there and seeming to endorse Bibi’s case or boycotting the speech and getting smacked around politically. The amazing thing is that I think that given the chance for a do-over, Ron wouldn’t change a thing. He feels like this is a fight worth having.”

It’s also a fight that may not end anytime soon. Late last week, the administration surprised many outside observers by announcing that it would be sending two of its highest-profile members — Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power — to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a mammoth event that began Sunday and is expected to draw more than 16,000 people. Rice has become a lightning rod for the administration’s sharpest critics in the pro-Israel community since her comments last week criticizing Netanyahu; AIPAC officials, worried about the potential for a public relations nightmare, are pleading with attendees not to boo Rice or boycott her speech.

The administration itself seems eager to tamp down the controversy. In an interview Sunday with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, Kerry said “it was odd, if not unique,” that the White House learned about the Netanyahu speech from Boehner’s office and wasn’t involved in the planning process. Still, he said Obama was committed to Israel’s security and to maintaining strong ties with Jerusalem. “The administration is not seeking to politicize this,” Kerry said.

Dermer, for his part, traveled back to the United States with Netanyahu Sunday. It’s not clear if he will attend Rice’s speech.

Dermer grew up in a Jewish family in Miami Beach and from birth was steeped in politics. His father, Jay Dermer, ousted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son Elliot to win the city’s mayorship. Ron Dermer’s older brother, David, continued the family tradition and won the Miami Beach mayoralty in 2001. Jay Dermer died shortly before Ron’s bar mitzvah; the future ambassador memorialized his father by naming his son Mayor Dermer.

From Miami Beach, Dermer went on to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied finance and management and fell under the tutelage of Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster. One day in class, Luntz assigned Dermer to argue in a class debate that Israel should be condemned for its treatment of Palestinians. Dermer wasn’t happy about the assignment, but after Luntz threatened to fail him, Dermer turned in a performance that would preview his skills as a political spin master.

After Luntz declared Dermer the winner, the Florida boy called his mother to tell her the news. “How did you do it?” she asked her son. “I lied,” Dermer said. “Like they do.”

Luntz saw a star in the making in Dermer and enlisted him in his efforts to win a Republican majority in Congress. In 1994, just a year after graduating from Penn, Dermer worked with Luntz to help Newt Gingrich draft his so-called “Contract with America,” which Republicans used as their platform as they mounted an ultimately successful campaign to take control of the House for the first time in decades. Dermer had stayed close to Luntz and other prominent Republicans, leading many critics to charge that the ambassador is a de facto member of the GOP. Dermer maintains that he is studiously nonpartisan.

From Washington, the young Dermer traveled to Oxford to study political science. A proud Zionist, he hung an Israeli flag that his father had received from a Miss Israel during a beauty pageant in Florida on the wall of his Oxford dorm, according to a later profile in the New York Times.

After graduating from Oxford, Dermer began what would be a lengthy immersion into Israeli politics, picking up a pair of influential mentors along the way. Luntz introduced Dermer to Natan Sharansky, the famous Soviet dissident, and in 1995 Dermer helped Sharansky create a new political party. Sharansky, in turn, introduced Dermer to Netanyahu, and the two men have been working together — formally and informally — ever since.

Dermer’s exceptionally close relationship with Netanyahu has long been the subject of fascination in both Jerusalem and Washington. While at Netanyahu’s side as his senior advisor — a title that, if anything, understated his importance — Dermer oversaw a portfolio that included speech writing, foreign affairs, polling, and divining Israel’s all-important relationship with the United States. Dermer is more than 20 years younger than his boss, but he has worked for Netanyahu for so long — and so fully shares the prime minister’s positions on Iran and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians — that he’s widely known in both Israel and the United States as “Bibi’s brain.”

In a 2011 profile, Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish culture and politics, said that Dermer “has done more to shape Israel’s relationship with the United States, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians over the past few years than any man aside from the prime minister himself.”

Dermer’s approach to his post differs markedly from that of his predecessor, Michael Oren, an articulate and telegenic diplomat who was a fixture on the Washington diplomatic social scene. Oren made himself easily accessible to journalists and routinely responded to emails sent to his personal accounts. Dermer keeps a far lower public profile, giving fewer interviews and making smaller numbers of public appearances. An Orthodox Jew, Dermer spends much of his free time with his wife and five young children.

But Dermer brings something to his job that Oren lacked: a direct line to Netanyahu and a relationship with the prime minister that is so close that the two men often use the same vocabulary. Those who deal with Dermer know that he speaks for the prime minister and that anything the ambassador says might as well have come from Netanyahu himself. Administration officials may not like him, but they understand that Dermer is empowered to negotiate on behalf of the leader of his country in a way few, if any, other ambassadors can do.

In his current post, Dermer stands apart from the Washington diplomatic set, a source of envy among his counterparts, who can only marvel at his close access to Washington’s power brokers.

Attending this year’s State of the Union address, Dermer made a beeline for Republican lawmakers, stopping to chat with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I noticed how Dermer was greeted by every Republican senator and congressman,” said one senior European colleague. “They all know him, they wave to him. He is in a different ball game.”

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said that Dermer’s tenure, like that of Netanyahu, has promoted a more partisan quality to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But he said the latest squabble was unlikely to do irreparable damage. In the short term, he said it might even improve Netanyahu’s electoral appeal because Obama is so unpopular in Israel. In the longer term, things could be very different.

“There is a very slow, incremental process taking place whereby Israel is being transformed into a partisan issue [in the U.S.],” he said. “I think Dermer’s personal profile, like Netanyahu’s, plays into that.”

Netanyahu’s upcoming speech has divided Jewish-American leaders like Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, who has counseled cancelling the speech, and Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who has urged lawmakers to attend the speech. Foxman and other American Jewish leaders condemned rabbi-to-the-stars Shmuley Boteach for running an ad in the New York Times accusing Rice of “callous disregard for genocide” in Rwanda and Israel. David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, condemned the ad as “revolting.”

“To blame Susan Rice for genocide, surround her with the skulls of victims of the Rwanda tragedy, and suggest that the Jewish people may be next because of her, is beyond shocking,” he said in a statement. “On many occasions — some heralded, others not — she was a stalwart, indeed indispensable friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Foxman declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this piece. Klein, for his part, dismissed suggestions that Dermer was promoting partisan politics.

“This is total nonsense,” he said. “I’ve known Ron Dermer for 20 years, before anyone had ever heard of him, and the fact that he worked for some Republican person in the past is totally irrelevant. This has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat.”

Despite the controversy, Dermer has retained his puckish sense of humor. After the White House said Boehner committed a “breach of protocol” by arranging the Netanyahu speech without first clearing it with the administration, Dermer took to his official Twitter account on Super Bowl Sunday with a light-hearted response: “Breaking Protocol, Choosing Sides: Go Patriots.”

Correction, Feb. 2, 2015: David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. A previous version of this article mistakenly said he was the executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

 CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

 

 @yochidreazen

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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