Michael Oren: Dermer is 'more sort of the PM's ambassador'

Israel’s DC envoy refuses to meet J Street, snubs other left-wing Jewish groups

Unlike his predecessor, Ron Dermer steadfastly refuses to sit down with liberal advocacy organization, which accuses him of acting more like a GOP operative than a diplomat

Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, speaks at the Economic Club of Detroit in Detroit, Michigan, on June 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, speaks at the Economic Club of Detroit in Detroit, Michigan, on June 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON — Since taking his post as Israel’s ambassador to the United States in 2013, Ron Dermer has refused to meet with J Street, a liberal Middle East advocacy group. He has likewise not engaged with other left-leaning Jewish groups often critical of the Netanyahu government.

Liberal Jewish activists told The Times of Israel that the envoy’s unwillingness to speak with them is further evidence of the splintering relations between Jerusalem and the American Diaspora, and the growing partisan divide over Israel in the United States.

“He may deeply disagree with our views, but they are representative of the majority of American Jews on Israel and a viable solution to the conflict,” Jessica Rosenblum, J Street’s senior vice president of public engagement, told the Times of Israel. “And it’s not just a majority of American Jews, but a growing majority.”

Recent polling has shown that Democrats and Republicans are diverging on their views about the seemingly intractable conflict. The Pew Research Center found in January that 79 percent of Republicans “sympathize” more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared to just 27% of Democrats — of whom about an equal percentage supported Palestinians more. In the last election, 71% of US Jews voted Democrat.

Beyond J Street, which has sent multiple written requests for a meeting since Dermer assumed his post six years ago, and for him to address its galas and conferences, the ambassador has not met with other leading left-wing Jewish groups, including the New Israel Fund or Americans for Peace Now, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Those groups, however, have not sought a meeting in the frequent and persistent way J Street has.

A source with Americans for Peace Now said a meeting was initially scheduled years ago, but Dermer then had to travel out of town. Since then, the organization has not “pursued it diligently,” the source said. But neither was any engagement initiated on the ambassador’s end.

Despite repeated requests, Ambassador Dermer declined to comment for this report. In public comments, Dermer has highlighted the importance of bipartisan support for Israel.

Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren, who held the post from 2009 to 2013, regularly met with J Street and other progressive Jewish organizations.

President Barack Obama welcomes Ambassador Michael B. Oren of the State of Israel to the White House Monday, July 20, 2009, during the credentials ceremony for newly appointed ambassadors to the United States (White House photo)

“Generally speaking, every ambassador sees his job in a different way,” Oren told The Times of Israel. “I saw myself very much as the ambassador of the people of Israel to the people of the United States. I don’t want to speak for Ron, but my sense is he’s more sort of the prime minister’s ambassador.”

Oren and Dermer had different backgrounds before ascending to their ambassadorial positions. Whereas Oren came out of academia — he was a historian best known for his book on the 1967 Six-Day War — Dermer was a right-wing political operative. Both were American born and educated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, at the president’s guest house, in Washington, DC, February 14, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him as the DC envoy, Dermer was a senior adviser to the Israeli premier in Jerusalem. During that time, he became a close confidant of his boss, earning the nickname of “Bibi’s brain.”

In the 1990s, he worked for the veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz. Together, they helped then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich craft the Republican Party’s “Contract with America,” a policy platform that was designed to help the party regain control of Congress during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Given that history, Democrats were wary when Netanyahu appointed Dermer to the sensitive diplomatic post, especially during the Obama years, when Israel was increasingly becoming less of a bipartisan consensus issue and the two leaders were at odds over the Palestinian issue and how to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

It also came after Netanyahu was seen as favoring Republican Mitt Romney, with whom he worked in the 1970s at a Boston consulting firm, to defeat former US president Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem. July 29, 2012. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem. July 29, 2012. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/FLASH90)

“There was a lot of frustration and disappointment and even outrage among some Democrats when he was chosen, because you were coming off the widespread impression that Netanyahu strongly wanted Mitt Romney to win in 2012,” said Logan Bayroff, J Street’s director of communications. “After Obama’s re-elected, you have the choice of a former Republican political operative as your ambassador. I think that sends a clear message about where your priorities lie.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal . (AP/Andrew Harnik)

That viewpoint is widely held by liberal Jews — that Dermer came to his job with a partisan outlook. He further exacerbated that impression when he arranged, behind the Obama White House’s back, for Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to lambaste the administration’s negations with Tehran.

“Dermer doesn’t play by diplomatic rules, he doesn’t come from that background, he doesn’t think like a diplomat,” charged a longtime Jewish activist in DC. “He thinks like a Republican operative. His job is to ensure that the Republicans win and that the Democrats are relatively powerless so that it doesn’t matter, for instance, where they are on the Iran deal.”

A changing US political landscape on Israel

While Oren agonized over deteriorating bipartisan support for Israel, which he dramatized in his 2015 memoir “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” he said there were certain groups with whom he would not engage: mainly, anti-Zionist organizations or those backing the BDS movement against Israel. But he found it imperative to meet with other advocacy groups that were an effective conduit into the broader American Jewish community.

“J Street was pretty much the Obama administration’s branch into the American Jewish community,” he said. “I met with that branch like I met with any other branch of the Obama administration.”

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)

J Street was incorporated in 2007, but took off during the Obama presidency. As a left-wing, pro-peace group that promoted a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was highly supportive of the Obama White House and intensely critical of Netanyahu. It also later became a staunch backer of the Iran nuclear deal.

One reason Oren decided it was an important constituency with which he should interact was its popularity with Jewish college students. “I realized our biggest problem on American campuses was not anti-Israel activity,” he said. “It’s apathy.”

“You’d go to a campus that had 20% Jews, but only 10 Jews who are involved in Israel activities,” said Oren. “Kids just weren’t that interested. Of the 10, two would be [affiliated with] J Street. I realized that J Street was our last opportunity to talk to them, to actually have a discourse with them.”

With US President Donald Trump in the White House, J Street says it has grown. The organization appears to have also reinvented itself, broadening its exclusive focus on Middle East policy into more of an umbrella anti-Trump “resistance” group.

“J Street today is mainstream,” Oren conceded, adding that it will only become more influential as an opposition group. “Usually organizations like that will grow when they’re in the opposition,” he said. “AIPAC grew immensely during the Obama years.”

The pendulum will swing again

Aaron David Miller, who has worked on the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio in both Republican and Democratic administrations, said that Dermer’s refusal to meet with J Street is “a symptom of the much broader strategic problem that exists” vis-a-vis Israel’s engagement with the US, which, he said, “is unprecedented.”

US President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after giving final remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before Trump’s departure, May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“You have a situation here almost unlike any I’ve ever seen,” Miller said. “You have an Israeli prime minister not terribly concerned about the diversity and complexity of American Jews. His priority is focusing on one guy — Donald Trump — and three other constituencies: evangelical Christians, conservative Republicans, American Jews and Jewish organizations that adopt either a supportive or not directly critical posture on what the Israelis are actually doing. Mr. Trump, incidentally, is also interested in catering to those three constituencies.”

Aaron David Miller (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aaron David Miller (photo credit: Courtesy)

Netanyahu has, in fact, alienated parts of the US Jewish community of late for backing out of an agreement to allow for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall and other policies that leave American Jews withering.

After Israeli authorities arrested — at 5 a.m. in July this year — a Conservative movement rabbi for officiating a non-Orthodox wedding, the leader of the US Conservative movement told The Times of Israel it was a sign that the country is “no longer a Jewish homeland for all the Jewish people.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has had an affectionate relationship with Trump, of whom 77% of American Jews disapprove, after a bitter, acrimonious relationship with Obama.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu also has made no secret of courting evangelicals over American Jews. A source of controversy at the time, Robert Jeffress, an avid Trump supporter and pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch in Dallas, gave the opening prayer for the Jerusalem embassy’s opening ceremony in May.

Dermer himself has said that “devout Christians” were now the “backbone” of US support for Israel. “It’s got to be a solid quarter of the population, and that is maybe 10, 15, 20 times the Jewish population,” he told The New York Times.

J Street officials claim the Netanyahu government has written off American Jews who do not provide blanket support to Jerusalem.

“Netanyahu has made no secret of the fact that there are American Jews that he values,” Bayroff said. “Those are the ones that consistently stand beside his policies 100% and have nothing critical to say about the occupation, and that generally tend to swing to the Republican side of the spectrum. Those are the constituencies that Dermer is interested in, those are the ones he thinks are important.”

Dermer has made overtures to Democrats since the bitter fight over the Iran nuclear deal and the election of Trump. He attended last year’s launch event of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, an advocacy arm for Jewish Democrats. In a speech, he stressed the importance of bipartisan support for Israel.

“You can’t fly a plane with one wing,” Dermer said.

Miller, for his part, warned that Netanyahu’s apparent strategy of investing in one side of America’s political spectrum will eventually backfire, saying there are vicissitudes to American politics. While Republicans are in power now, Democrats will gain the White House again one day: When that day comes, he cautioned, there will be an edict from Democratic constituencies to approach Israel in ways Netanyahu and Dermer would likely not find amenable to their stances.

“It erodes the central adhesive which has accounted for the durability and resiliency of the US-Israeli relationship,” Miller said of the prime minister and Dermer’s relationship with American Jews. “It is undermining the bipartisanship, which is that element.”

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