Ron Dermer hasn’t yet even been formally credentialed in Washington, but the criticisms of him are already starting. As a feature in Politico Magazine published today noted, many on the Hill and in the White House, as well as Israel’s open foes, consider it to be open season on the new Israeli ambassador to the United States. In the piece written by JTA’s Ron Kampeas, it was made clear that the administration and some Democrats are unhappy about Dermer’s appointment since they are angry about the possibility that he will lobby Congress to undermine the White House position on nuclear negotiations with Iran or see him as a natural ally of President Obama’s Republican foes.
But complaints about Dermer have little to do with unfair accusations that he will behave inappropriately. As Kampeas illustrated in his account of some of the meetings the new ambassador has already held with members of Congress, Dermer is not looking to get involved in partisan battles that would pit Republicans against Democrats. If Dermer worries some people in Washington, it is because, like his boss Prime Minister Netanyahu, he understands American politics and will be a skilled advocate for his nation rather than a cipher that can be ignored.
Dermer has more than the usual diplomatic battles to fight in Washington. Along with the usual cast of Israel-haters who seek to undermine the alliance between the U.S. and the Jewish state, there are many in the administration who regard Dermer with suspicion because of his personal ties to Republicans. Dermer is a former American who is the son and brother of Democratic mayors of Miami Beach. But his first job was in the office of Republican consultant Frank Luntz and the book he co-wrote about democracy with another former boss, Natan Sharansky, was embraced by George W. Bush, who said the work exemplified his own freedom agenda.
But what makes him a target for many in the capital and the media is that he is a confidante of Netanyahu and, like the prime minister, knows his way around American culture and politics. Though like his able predecessor Michael Oren Dermer will be careful about never crossing the line between advocacy and lobbying, the administration would probably prefer someone at the Israeli Embassy who couldn’t speak to Congress as well as the American people with the same sort of fluency as Dermer will be able to do.
Moreover, most of the brickbats being tossed in Dermer’s direction are not only really aimed at Netanyahu and/or the Jewish state. They are also based on a false reading of the disputes that have roiled the U.S.-Israel alliance in the past five years. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the mainstream press, it has not been the statements and actions of Netanyahu and his “brain” Dermer that have caused rifts in the relationship. Rather, it has been the president’s picking of fights with Israel and policy shifts such as his pursuit of détente with Iran that ignored the Jewish state’s concerns about a weak nuclear deal. Accusations about Netanyahu trying to undermine Obama are really complaints about Israel not knuckling under to U.S. pressure, not evidence of bad behavior on the part of the prime minister or his envoys. Israeli diplomats who aren’t strong advocates tend to get better press than those who aren’t shy about setting Israel’s critics straight.
Those expecting him to diverge from Oren’s oft-repeated theme about the importance and enduring value of the U.S.-Israel alliance are wrong. But neither will he desist from explaining Israel’s concerns to the media and Congress. Moreover, the administration should be glad that in Dermer they have someone with a direct line to the prime minister. If there are further misunderstandings between the two countries, it will clearly be due to the White House’s decision to ignore the Israelis rather than any miscommunications. Though Israel’s critics would prefer to have someone in Dermer’s place who would soft-pedal the country’s valid positions on life and death issues, the idea that the ambassador is disqualified because of his American connections says more about a desire to silence or marginalize him than it does about his suitability for the job.