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White House lashes Israeli envoy over Netanyahu speech

Ron Dermer accused by ‘outraged’ officials of harming US-Israel ties; Bush-era ambassador to Israel calls him a ‘political operative’

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

In a scathing rebuke, a senior Obama administration official has charged that Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, has been working to advance the political fortunes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the expense of the US-Israel relationship, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

The accusation marks a striking escalation in the rhetorical spat between the White House and the Netanyahu government over the prime minister’s planned speech to Congress in early March.

The “unusually sharp criticism” by the senior official, who was not named in the report, reflected “the outrage the episode has incited within President Obama’s inner circle,” the Times suggested. “Such officially authorized criticisms of diplomats from major allies are unusual.”

Netanyahu accepted an invitation to speak to Congress from Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), an invitation that was not coordinated with the White House, and which White House officials called a troubling breach of diplomatic protocol.

Netanyahu is expected to use the speech to campaign against the White House’s stance in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Boehner himself framed the speech as a response to Obama’s promise to veto legislation imposing stiffer sanctions on Iran that Republicans and some Democrats have drafted and which the White House vehemently opposes.

“I believe the prime minister of Israel has a strong voice,” Boehner told Fox News on Wednesday. “He believes that the threat of the Iranians having a nuclear weapon is a very serious threat. The Israeli prime minister can also talk with some expertise about the growing threat of radical Islam. We’ve got a serious problem in the world. The president just wants to act like it’s gonna just disappear. So as a co-equal branch of our government, I don’t have any problem at all in doing what I did to invite the prime minister to come to Congress and address those concerns,” Boehner said.

Asked if the Obama administration held an “antipathy” toward Netanyahu, Boehner replied, “Of course there is. They don’t even try to hide it…. Israel has been our strongest ally in the region for decades. We have a great relationship with them, and we ought to look for ways to work together on behalf of our shared interest, not have the kind of antipathy that we’ve seen over the last several years.”

Dermer, too, defended the decision on Wednesday. “I have no regrets whatsoever that I have acted in a way to advance my country’s interests,” he was quoted as saying in the Times report.

The failure to coordinate with the White House was not intended as a slight, he added. “My understanding was that it was the speaker’s [Boehner’s] prerogative to do, and that he would be the one to inform the administration,” Dermer reportedly said. “The prime minister feels very strongly that he has to speak on this issue. That’s why he accepted the invitation, not to wade into your political debate or make this a partisan issue, and not to be disrespectful to the president.”

Netanyahu initially insisted the invitation was bipartisan, as the formal invite from Boehner claimed, but Democratic leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) denied they had been consulted before the invitation was issued.

Dan Kurtzer, an ambassador to Israel during the George W. Bush administration, furthered the White House criticism, charging that Dermer was “a political operative, he’s not really an ambassador. What he did was totally unacceptable from a standpoint of diplomacy. To think about going behind the back of a friendly country’s administration and working out this kind of arrangement with the parliament or the Congress — it’s unheard-of.”

“He has soiled his pad; who’s he going to work with?” Kurtzer told the Times.

Dermer also had his defenders in the report.

“He’s more direct” than his predecessors, admitted Frank Luntz, a Republican political strategist and Dermer’s former employer in the 1990s. “He’s less judicious with his words, but he makes it up with principle. He’s got tremendous courage and he’s prepared to take a principled risk. I don’t know anyone who is as focused on a specific goal and is prepared to walk through brick walls to get there.”

Republican activists placed the blame for the dust-up on the White House.

“This administration has repeatedly sought to both undermine and embarrass this prime minister, and the same Democrats who now profess to be so outraged by this have been notably silent,” Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks told the paper. “When the dust settles on this — and the dust will settle — I think that he’ll continue to be effective on the range of issues that are important to Israel’s security.”

Dermer defended Netanyahu’s planned speech on Sunday, saying it was the prime minister’s “sacred duty” to present his stance on Iran. Speaking at an Israel Bonds event in Florida, he charged that the nuclear agreement being discussed between world powers and Iran “could endanger the very existence of the State of Israel.”

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