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Ron Dermer speaks to media at Trump Tower on November 17, 2016, in New York. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Ron Dermer speaks to media at Trump Tower on November 17, 2016, in New York. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
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Netanyahu’s envoy Dermer departs US, but to Democrats he’s been gone for years

Ambassador’s close relationship with the PM and willingness to bet it all on Trump paid handsome dividends, but many on other side of aisle say strategy will haunt Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

NEW YORK — In 2017, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer gave a speech to a new organization formed to bolster Jewish support for the Democratic Party.

Addressing the fledgling group, the envoy stressed the importance of initiatives that strengthen both Republicans’ and Democrats’ solidarity with the Jewish state, ensuring that the US-Israel relationship can remain a matter of bipartisan consensus.

Dermer told the crowd he needed the support of both parties to effectively pilot the US-Israel relationship.

“You cannot fly a plane with one wing,” he said.

For over seven years as ambassador, Dermer, 49, helped steer the US-Israel relationship through the turbulence of Democratic President Barack Obama’s second term followed by the friendlier skies of Republican Donald Trump’s administration, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found a partner in Washington with whom he was politically aligned.

It was Dermer’s own exceptionally close alignment with Netanyahu that made him a uniquely effective ambassador, according to Jewish community leaders, members of Congress, White House officials and Washington insiders who worked with the ambassador.

US President Donald Trump, right, speaks during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, in the Oval Office of the White House, as Ambassador Ron Dermer looks on, January 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP/ Evan Vucci)

However, that bond proved to be a double-edged sword, because while those speaking to Dermer could feel confident that he represented a direct line to the prime minister, Democrats sensed that the Israeli premier and his trusted envoy had made a strategic decision to place them on mute. In fact, they grew increasingly convinced that Netanyahu had aligned himself entirely with the Republican party, to the point where an opportunity to engage with an ambassador who had the prime minister’s ear was not something they found worth their while.

“Ambassador Dermer’s tenure sadly set back both the US-Israel relationship and the relationship between Israeli and American Jews. His determination to act as a partisan operative, aligning Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government with the Republican Party, seriously angered and alienated many leading Democrats,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the dovish, pro-Israel lobby J Street.

While few Democratic Party-affiliated and liberal-leaning individuals would go on the record saying anything negative about Dermer, even the more moderate members of the party, which remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel, declined to praise the envoy’s performance and insisted that no colleague of theirs would agree to do so either.

Dermer, who wraps up his tenure Wednesday and will be succeeded by UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan, declined to be interviewed for this story. However, his office was unapologetic for the ambassador’s warm embrace of Trump, asserting that it paid dividends for Israel and did not come at the expense of damaging the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel relationship.

US President Donald Trump, left, turns to give a pen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019 after signing the official proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. From left, White House adviser Jared Kushner, US special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Netanyahu’s man in Washington

Dermer arrived in Washington in late 2013 as the Obama administration was forging ahead with its efforts to reach a multilateral agreement that traded sanctions relief for curbs to Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu strongly opposed such a deal, to a point that some worried for the future of the “ironclad” US-Israel relationship. This came after years in which Netanyahu and Obama had sparred, sometimes publicly, over the stagnant Middle East peace process and Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank.

Dermer was walking into a situation that would have tested any incoming ambassador, but the Florida native was doing so without the clean slate other envoys might have enjoyed.

The son of former Miami Beach mayor Jay Dermer (a post his brother David would later assume), Ron Dermer took as his first job out of college in the early 1990s the role of assistant to Republican pollster Frank Luntz in the design of a strategy for the GOP to flip Congress.

Natan Sharansky, left, head of the Jewish Agency, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the latter’s Jerusalem office, June 18, 2013. (Kofi Gideon/Flash90/via JTA)

While in Israel in 1996, he volunteered for Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael BaAliyah party, and Sharansky soon after introduced Dermer to Netanyahu, who was then in his first stint as prime minister and wanted to understand public opinion among Russian-speaking immigrants.

“After their first meeting, I asked Bibi how it went and he replied, ‘This guy doesn’t like me very much’ — because he was so critical in his analysis —  but there was good chemistry between them; and after the second meeting, they clicked,” said Sharansky.

Dermer became an Israeli citizen in 1997 and began working for Netanyahu as an adviser and speechwriter starting in 2000.

By 2010, profiles of Dermer, then Netanyahu’s top diplomatic aide, were referring to him as “Bibi’s brain,” a sobriquet that would later follow him to Washington.

“Every ambassador forges his own role,” said Dermer’s predecessor Michael Oren. “While I saw mine as being the representative of the Israeli people to the American people, Ron saw his as being Bibi’s representative to the White House”

“The degree to which Bibi trusted his opinion was something I never saw with other people,” said Sharansky.

Michael Oren, who preceded Dermer as Israel’s envoy to Washington, said he realized that Dermer would be Netanyahu’s personal representative to the US at the first event Dermer hosted as ambassador, “where he spent half of his speech talking about Bibi.”

“I remember thinking, ‘Huh! So that’s what this is going to be about,” he recalled.

“Every ambassador forges his own role,” Oren said. “While I saw mine as being the representative of the Israeli people to the American people, Ron saw his as being Bibi’s representative to the White House.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he clarified, “and he was incredibly effective in that role as well.”

While Dermer’s close ties to Netanyahu weren’t necessarily a problem for Democrats from the get-go, they did take exception to perceived attempts by both the prime minister and his then-diplomatic adviser to boost Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign against Obama in 2012.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann board their charter plane in Tel Aviv, Israel, as they travel to Poland, July 30, 2012. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

“There were multiple occasions in 2012 where I’d be speaking with reporters, and it was very clear to me that they had just gotten off the phone with Ron Dermer who was spinning them on behalf of Romney,” said one Democratic Party official who was active at the time and who has also been involved in pro-Israel and Jewish community outreach. “There was a strong feeling on the campaign that we weren’t going up just against [the Republican Jewish Committee], but against the government of Israel.”

Dermer also helped organize a trip to Israel by Romney ahead of the presidential election, which was promoted by the Netanyahu government.

Dermer has flatly denied any attempt to tip the scales during the 2012 US campaign. An embassy official pointed out that Dermer was acting within his capacity as an aide to the prime minister in organizing the Romney trip, which followed the same protocols as the ones used during Obama’s own visit to Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer presents his credentials to President Barack Obama at the White House, December 4, 2013. (Twitter/Amb. Ron Dermer)

Despite the suspicion and frayed ties, Dermer started off by working to build goodwill among Democrats.

During a meeting with US lawmakers about Iran weeks after he assumed his post, the new ambassador refrained from voicing support for a Republican effort to confront the White House’s nuclear deal activities, while also praising the Obama administration for supporting Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza a year earlier, according to a Congressional staffer present at the closed-door meeting. Dermer’s stance “impressed” the Democrats in the room, the staffer said.

The bipartisanship has sailed

But any points the ambassador might have scored from Democrats during his first two years in Washington were docked entirely as things came to a head over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by the US and vociferously opposed by Israel’s government.

In early March 2015, Netanyahu gave an address to a joint session of Congress to rail against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in the ostensible hope of convincing lawmakers to oppose it with a veto-proof majority.

The appearance was orchestrated by Dermer and House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican. Democrats were infuriated by the move, seeing it as a major snub of Obama on his home turf, and Netanyahu was refused a White House invite during his visit to Washington.

“There were perceptions among Democrats after that speech that they had been ignored and disrespected and that led to a distancing from Ron,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Ron Dermer speaks on April 16, 2015, in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

One senior Democratic Congressional aide called the speech and the way it came about the “most damaging moment in the history of the bipartisan relationship between the US and Israel.”

Six years later, it is still considered a watershed moment in the relationship between Netanyahu’s administration and Democrats.

“You cannot overstate the impact that it had. I still hear from members of the Black Caucus to this day who are sure that Netanyahu and Dermer would not have done that to a White president,” said a Democratic Party operative. “While that is not true, if you’re a sensitive analyst of American politics, you understand the kind of inferences that people can draw in these situations and work to prevent them.”

From a strategic standpoint, the speech had been a failure for Dermer and Netanyahu, one House Democrat argued. She pointed out that it not only failed to convince any members of her party to oppose the Iran deal, but it led to several members, including Jewish ones who were on the fence, to fall in line with the Obama administration.

Some Democrats also felt that the Israeli ambassador was too forceful in his broader lobbying approach.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

“There was a period of time during which I didn’t know which way I was going to vote on the JCPOA, but what I did know was that if Ron Dermer called me one more time I’d vote in favor,” said one House member, half-joking.

When an Israeli parliamentary delegation met with Congressional leaders shortly before Netanyahu’s speech, Rep. Jim Clyburn got up from his chair and told Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in disgust, “you’re doing this to my president,” according to one congressman who was in the room along with Dermer.

To Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Committee, Dermer was simply doing his job. “He may have ruffled some feathers with the Obama administration, but he did what he was there to do, which was to advocate and be a spokesman for Israel’s positions.”

Dermer considers the speech a highlight of his tenure in Washington and harbors no regrets.

“It was never about politics,” he told Jewish Insider in September, arguing that the speech “was one of the critical moments that most contributed to” Israel’s eventual normalization accords with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states opposed to Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by members of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 3, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Choosing sides

Beyond the speech itself, the fight over the Iran deal had much broader implications for the US-Israel relationship.

Once the JCPOA passed, Netanyahu and Dermer shifted away from significant engagement with both the Democratic Party and, on many issues, with the organized American Jewish community, which they felt had not done enough to oppose the Iran deal, according to a congressional staffer who claimed the Israeli envoy had told them as much.

Instead, Dermer focused more serious outreach efforts on evangelical Christian and Jewish Republican voters who were already reliably supportive of the Israeli government’s positions. “Because if you’re not going to be with us on the JCPOA, who needs you,” the staffer said, summarizing the envoy’s turn away from Democrats.

“He understood the trends in the American Jewish community that people were not going to buy into Netanyahu’s politics, so in order to continue selling them he looked elsewhere,” said another congressional aide.

“He understood the trends in the American Jewish community that people were not going to buy into Netanyahu’s politics, so in order to continue selling them he looked elsewhere,” said another congressional aide

An embassy official rejected the claim, asserting that the “ambassador increased his outreach to Democratic elected officials and met with almost the entire Congressional Black Caucus, always keeping an open channel of communication with liberals and conservatives alike.”

On this issue, at least, Dermer was not just acting as Netanyahu’s personal envoy.

According to one leader in the institutional American Jewish community, frustration with US Jewry’s support of the Iran deal, tepid as it was, represented a near-consensus position for Israeli lawmakers.

The community leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, recalled leading a trip of national rabbinical leaders to Israel during which the delegation met with Knesset members from across the political spectrum.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, left, pays respects as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose under the Portico at the top of the front steps of the US Supreme Court building on September 24, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

“From Bennett’s party [on the right] to Labor [on the left], they were given a stern message of frustration and disappointment with Democratic Jewry’s lack of support for Israel’s position, given that Iran is such an existential threat,” he said.

While polling suggests that a plurality of American Jews supported the JCPOA, major Jewish organizations such as AIPAC, AJC and the Conference of Presidents all joined the Israeli government in lobbying against the deal. They may not have approved of the prime minister’s speech to Congress, but their schism with the Netanyahu government wasn’t as severe as the one the latter had with the Democratic party, said the community leader.

Enter Trump

Exactly four years ago, Dermer’s role underwent a nearly 180-degree turn as Donald Trump took office as president. Overly confident Democrats had been joking that Dermer would be sent back to Israel when Hillary Clinton won the presidency, since Netanyahu would want to reset the relationship, one party operative said.

Instead, Dermer was suddenly taking an active role in shaping policy with the executive branch rather than fighting an uphill battle to fend off a White House-driven agenda deemed pro-Iran and anti-Israel.

US President Donald Trump talks with U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Chairman Tom Bernstein, center and Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 25, 2017, during the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s National Days of Remembrance ceremony. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The RJC’s Brooks credited Dermer for his involvement in a host of pro-Israel moves carried out by the Trump administration, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transfer of the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the unveiling of a peace plan that envisioned Israel annexing all of its settlements in the West Bank.

But Dermer has been given the most acclaim for his role in the negotiations that led to the Abraham Accords, the series of normalization deals with Arab states during his last few months in office.

The envoy participated in marathon talks with Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yussef al-Otaiba that ultimately led to a normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE in August. Deals with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco would follow.

Otaiba said the Israeli ambassador “has become a good friend, not just a work colleague.”

Explaining the extent of Dermer’s involvement in the normalization agreement, White House peace envoy Avi Berkowitz recalled how the sides had been rushing to draft a joint statement following what was called the first-ever direct passenger flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi in late August.

(From L-R) UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba and his Israeli counterpart Ron Dermer are interviewed on MSNBC on December 7, 2020. (Screen capture/MSNBC)

They were nearly finished when Berkowitz realized they were missing one crucial piece. “Wait, did you confirm this with Ron?” he recalled frantically asking someone.

“It showed the powerful role he played, even though he was in Washington at the time,” the White House envoy said.

Former White House peace envoy Jason Greenblatt said that well before the Abraham Accords were negotiated, Dermer had already been voicing one of the initiative’s main messages — that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need not be an overwhelming obstacle to peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

“From early on, he believed that this approach could be successful,” Greenblatt said.

It was a position, opposed by the Palestinians, that had for years also been a main talking point of someone else: Netanyahu.

It was always partisan

While his backers saw his close ties to Netanyahu and the Trump administration as a strength, Dermer’s critics viewed them, particularly those with the polarizing Republican president, as a major point of contention.

“I don’t know of a single Democratic member of Congress who doesn’t now hold their nose when working with Ron Dermer,” one senior Congressional staffer from the party said

The senior Democratic Congressional aide acknowledged that Dermer and Netanyahu’s cheerleading for the US president paid dividends in the short term, but argued that “it comes at the expense of mortgaging bipartisan support in the long term.”

“I don’t know of a single Democratic member of Congress who doesn’t now hold their nose when working with Ron Dermer,” the senior staffer said.

A Democratic House member went further. “We have no problem working with right-wing politicians in Israel as long as the cooperation is approached in a nonpartisan way. With Bibi and Dermer, it’s always partisan.

“In this context, when meetings with us are scheduled — and there were still many — they’re not taken as seriously,” the congressman added.

US Vice President Mike Pence (third-right) hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. The meeting was also attended by Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, left, and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, right (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

An embassy official responded that while Trump may have been unpopular among Democrats and American Jews, “it is unrealistic to expect Israel’s ambassador to stop expressing his support for policies that are vital to the country’s national interest.”

“With every sitting president you seek to build the best relationship with his administration while maintaining strong relations with the other side of the aisle,” said the official, pointing out that Dermer also dealt with frustration from certain Republicans who were upset that the ambassador continued to engage with the Obama administration after the JCPOA was passed. Both Obama and Biden were also invited to speak at major events at the Israeli embassy during the final two years of their second term.

But the Democratic operative involved in Jewish community outreach recalled attending several events at the Israeli embassy “where it was very clear that Dermer was only talking to the people in the room who were sympathetic to Trump.”

“It is unrealistic to expect Israel’s ambassador to stop expressing his support for policies that are vital to the country’s national interest, embassy officials maintain

“It’s one thing to support Trump’s policies, but he was over the top, knowing very well that the president was extremely unpopular in the Jewish community,” the Democratic operative said.

“His job is to be a shaliah [emissary] to the community, but he obviously didn’t see it that way,” he added.

His relationship with the US Jewish community was also damaged in June 2017 when the Netanyahu government reneged on a commitment to create a permanent new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, including shared oversight by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders. Given that nearly two-thirds of American Jews are non-Orthodox, the establishment of such a concourse at the Orthodox Rabbinate-controlled site was seen as a matter of utmost importance to major Jewish organizations in the US. An agreement to create the egalitarian plaza took years to negotiate, and Dermer had played a major role as Netanyahu’s adviser in the US.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer addresses a Hanukkah reception at the Washington D.C. residence of Poland’s Ambassador the US Piotr Wilczek, December 3, 2018 (screen shoot: facebook.com/ambdermer)

The Jewish community leader who spoke with The Times of Israel credited the Israeli envoy for his dedication in reaching a compromise with Orthodox leadership in Israel. However, he lamented, when Netanyahu then caved to pressure from those very same rabbis and walked back his pledge, “Ron’s role became to completely support the prime minister, shielding him from any type of criticism.”

“That shifted the relationship to a point where it has become kind of moot,” said the American Jewish community leader.

Little choice?

Nonetheless, he and other leaders of other major Jewish organizations such as the ADL and the Conference of Presidents made a point in emphasizing that despite any political differences, Dermer always made himself available and listened to their concerns.

Labeling the claim that Dermer contributed to the polarization of US politics on Israel “absurd,” Brooks argued that Dermer was left with little choice. “As the two political parties move further and further apart on Israel, it’s clear that the Republican party is without question the only pro-Israel party.”

Reform female and male rabbis pray together at Robinson’s Arch, the Western Wall site slated for future egalitarian services, on February 25, 2016. (Y.R/Reform Movement)

“The rise of the progressive left that wants to move the Democratic party away from its historical pro-Israel leanings — that’s what’s been polarizing, not Ron Dermer,” he maintained.

Former House majority leader Eric Cantor went further, insisting that Dermer believed deeply in maintaining bipartisan support for Israel.

“Having grown up in the US, I know he understands the nature of our politics,” he said. “That it’s never a one-way street and that the pendulum swings.”

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