Dermer’s portfolio said to include ties with White House, advancing deal with Saudis

PM’s confidante and ex-envoy to US will use new job as Strategic Affairs minister to try to expand Abraham Accords while acting as point man to US, despite poor ties with Democrats

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)
Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

Newly appointed Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer will reportedly serve as the point man for ties on White House matters in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government.

Dermer, a former ambassador to the US, was sworn in Thursday as head of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which Netanyahu resurrected after it was shuttered by the previous government. The ministry was previously tasked with countering the boycott-Israel movement.

According to a Thursday Channel 12 report, Dermer will use the vaguely defined role to work on expanding the Abraham Accords, specifically seeking a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia. He will also likely have a seat on the high-level security cabinet.

A separate, unsourced report on the network said that a Saudi normalization deal would be conditioned on Israel forgoing formal annexation of the West Bank, maintaining the status quo barring Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, offering concessions to the Palestinians and maintaining good ties with the Biden administration

In exchange, Israel will lobby Washington to sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia — something that has become highly unpopular in the US, particularly among Democrats due to Riyadh’s human rights record and recent role in the rise of global oil prices.

Such an agreement would pave way for Saudi Arabia to agree to normalize with Israel, Channel 12 explained, noting that far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir have assured Netanyahu that they will not act to thwart the effort.

File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

The Channel 12 report did not cite any sources, and it appeared to rely on a briefing by a source affiliated with Netanyahu, rather than US or Saudi officials.

While Saudi Arabia agreed to open its skies to Israeli overflights earlier this year and committed to consider allowing direct flights between Tel Aviv and the kingdom for Muslim pilgrims on the annual Haj, it has repeatedly said that it remains committed to the paradigm set forth in the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative. The proposal offers Israel full normalization with the Arab world if it first agrees to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Israel rejected the proposal outright and points to the Abraham Accords deals it signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco as proof that the 2002 initiative is no longer relevant since countries have begun normalizing ties with the Jewish state and are not waiting for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

In his final Knesset address before Netanyahu replaced him as prime minister, Yair Lapid said his government had managed to start a quiet dialogue with the Saudis that came to head with Riyadh’s agreement to allow Israeli overflights.

Lapid said his government “laid the foundations for full Saudi accession to the Abraham Accords.”

“The full classified details” of the progress in this regard will be handed over to the incoming prime minister, he said. “If the new government continues on the path we’ve set,” he says, “full normalization” with the Saudis can be reached in the not-too-distant future, Lapid added.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset on December 29, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The choice of Dermer as point man on the White House comes some seven years after he was essentially made persona non grata by the Obama administration, amid accusations that he and Netanyahu were working closely with Republicans to publicly oppose the White House on Iran.

However, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has said he knows Dermer well and thinks they can work effectively together.

Dermer’s reported portfolio and close ties with Netanyahu are expected to make him one of the most influential figures on foreign policy in the incoming government, of which he is the only member who does not serve in the Knesset.

It remains unclear to what extent Dermer’s brief will clash with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s responsibilities. Cohen is set to rotate in the position with fellow Likud Minister Israel Katz, a former foreign minister who was seen largely as a non-entity when previously serving as Israel’s top diplomat role under Netanyahu.

Likud MK Eli Cohen speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

US President Joe Biden, who served as vice president under Barack Obama, said Thursday that he looked forward to working with Netanyahu, “who has been my friend for decades,” to advance peace.

“The United States will continue to support the two-state solution and to oppose policies that endanger its viability or contradict our mutual interests and values,” Biden said in a statement, expressing a policy that will likely be at odds with the new government, given its principled support for annexing large parts of the West Bank and expanding settlement construction.

The Biden administration has not stated whether it will work with some of the Netanyahu government’s most far-right members, such as Ben Gvir, Smotrich or Deputy Minister Avi Maoz. Nides and other Biden officials have attempted to downplay any potential tensions with the governing coalition while clarifying that they will judge it based on its policies, not its personalities.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report

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