Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer called on the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden to not repeat what he called “the mistakes of the past” when it comes to dealing with Iran, while stressing the pro-Israel bona fides of the new American leader.
Dermer, who ends his term next month, spoke to the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine about his seven years in office and the lasting impact of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial March 2015 speech to the US Congress warning of Iran’s nuclear aspirations, which he organized, and which he argued laid the path to Israel’s recent normalization with four Arab states.
“We hope that a new administration works toward trying to find a common position where they will not go back to the mistakes of the past,” Dermer said in the interview published last week.
Dermer was instrumental in arranging the speech given by Netanyahu to Congress in which he urged against the US signing a negotiated deal with Iran, clashing with the Obama administration, which was pushing the deal. In July that year the US signed the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which granted Iran relief from heavy financial sanctions in return for it dismantling the weapons-development aspects of its nuclear program.
The Trump administration pulled out of pact in 2018 and reinstated its sanctions, though its moves were resisted by the other signatories to the deal. Since then Iran has also stepped back from some of its commitments, notably ramping up its production of enriched uranium.
Biden is eager to bring the US back into the deal, which was forged while he was vice president under Obama.
“Without that speech [Netanyahu’s address to Congress], I doubt that we’d have the peace deals with the Arab states today,” Dermer said, referring to recent US-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.
“What I didn’t anticipate at the time was the impact it was going to have on the Arab states,” he continued. “They saw it almost as Israel’s declaration of independence from America. Up to that point, Israel had been perceived as a vassal of America, and why deal with the vassal when you can deal with America?
“And I can tell you as a fact that the speech dramatically accelerated contacts beneath the surface between Israel and many Arab states,” Dermer said.
“If you think about it from the Arab states’ point of view,” he said, “what you see is an Iranian tiger or an ISIS [Islamic State] leopard, and you have an 800-pound American gorilla that is leaving the building, and they look around and see a 250-pound gorilla with a kippah on, and they say, well, you know, we’d like to have a strong partnership with you.”
Dermer said that behind the scenes he has over the years met with envoys from countries that publicly shun Israel.
“I think Menachem Begin once said that you never ask an Israeli prime minister who he meets with at night — I would say the same thing when it comes to Israeli ambassadors,” Dermer said. “A lot of officials, a lot of ambassadors, even from countries who we don’t have formal relations with, made contact with me. I had the added advantage of the perception that I’m close to the prime minister, which is true, so people knew if they wanted to get a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I would be a pretty good conduit for that message.”
The outgoing Israeli envoy also praised Biden as a strong ally of Israel.
“I think has a deep emotional commitment to Israel — he passes the ‘kishke test’ with flying colors,” Dermer said, employing a phrase referring to whether someone understands Israel’s needs deep in their gut.
“He’s been involved in politics for 50 years, and I think his bond with Israel is extremely strong,” Dermer said.
Responding to Hebrew media rumors that Likud party leader Netanyahu is considering Mossad head Yossi Cohen or Dermer to succeed him as head of the Likud party, Dermer said he is not aware of any such plan, but noted that all three do share similar views.
“I don’t know if the prime minister said that,” he replies. “But if he did, then I think it shows how he sees the subject that is most important in his eyes, which is the Iranian existential threat. And if he did say such a thing, it’s because he views both of us as the two people who see eye-to-eye with him on this.”
Although former Likud minister Gilad Erdan is slated to take over from Dermer after Biden’s inauguration, the Walla news website recently reported that Netanyahu may go back on the choice and is considering another candidate. Erdan is serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and was intended to hold both positions.
The report, which was denied by the premier’s office, said that Netanyahu had held a rare private meeting with Erdan and quoted two unnamed senior sources assessing that he wants to tap Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz as the ambassador in Washington instead.