PHILADELPHIA — Asked to make “the progressive case” for Israel to an audience attending the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, Ron Dermer attempted to dissipate some of the tension generated by US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fraught relationship during the last seven years.
It is something the Israeli ambassador to the United States has done many times since the two allies concluded their showdown last fall after the Iran nuclear deal signing. But at the quadrennial confab of Obama’s party, which is aiming to ignite the general election campaign of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, such an objective was fully on display when Dermer attended an event hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
“A great friend of Israel doesn’t mean you agree on everything,” he told Robert Wexler, president of the advocacy group and a former Democratic member of Congress. “But it means we know where your heart is, and everyone should understand bipartisan support is a strategic value. You can’t fly a plane with one wing.”
While acknowledging his government’s disagreement with the White House over how to best thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Dermer commended Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security. “When the president says he thinks the Iran deal makes Israel safer,” he said. “I think he’s sincere.”
After ticking off ways he feels Israel can be defended as a progressive cause — including the country’s commitment to gay rights and history of having Arab citizens serve in the Knesset and on its Supreme Court — Dermer defended some of his boss’s policies that have alienated portions of the American Jewish community, particularly settlement construction in the West Bank.
A Pew Study from 2013, for instance, found that 44 percent of American Jews consider ongoing settlement construction in the West Bank “hurts Israel’s security,” while 17% think it helps and 29% think it makes no difference.
Prodded by Wexler to address arguments that building in areas over the Green Line and outside major settlement blocs — which mark areas Israel would likely keep under any accord — runs in contrast to the goal of a two-state solution, Dermer countered by saying a Jewish presence in those areas does not prevent a Palestinian state from emerging there.
“Why is building over the security fence incompatible with a two-state outcome?” he responded. “Not building in those areas was never a precondition for negotiations.”
He insisted that under a comprehensive peace agreement, settlers should be able to choose between living in historic, biblical Israel and the State of Israel, but that forcibly removing them from the West Bank would not advance a deal. “We should not accept ethnic cleansing as a path toward peace,” he said.
The ambassador went on to assure the event’s attendees of Netanyahu’s commitment to two states, referencing the prime minister’s famous 2009 address at Bar Ilan University when he formally voiced support for a demilitarized Palestinian state, his 10-month settlement freeze, and his participation in nine months of peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry.
He cast blame on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for refusing to negotiate, not responding to former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace offer in Annapolis and threatening to sue Britain last week over the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which expressed support for a Jewish state to be revived within the then-British-ruled area formerly part of the Ottoman Empire.
Dermer repeatedly said that Abbas demonstrated his unwillingness to “cross the Rubicon” toward a peace that would entail painful concessions on both sides.
While eschewing any political statements concerning America’s presidential election, Dermer praised Hillary Clinton for her role in negotiating a 2012 ceasefire during a violent conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules Gaza. “I give her a lot of credit for what she did at that time,” he said. “Things could have gone very badly. A lot of lives were saved.”
With Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system being relevant to that episode, the ambassador indicated he felt current negotiations over a new memorandum of understanding that would provide a more robust security package to the Jewish state could be concluded “in the next few weeks.”
At the beginning of the event, an incognito protester from the CodePink activist group interrupted the event, screaming, “Occupation is not a universal human right” and pulling a pink sign out of her purse that said, “Free Palestine.”