The official announcement that Ron Dermer is to be appointed Israel’s new ambassador to the United States is only a few hours old but the brickbats being prepared by the Jewish state’s critics are already starting to fly in his direction. Dermer, a close aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had long been rumored to be the successor to Michael Oren when that COMMENTARY contributor left his office this summer after four years in Washington. But while Oren largely escaped much negative scrutiny during his time as Israel’s most important foreign envoy, Dermer should expect to find himself in the cross hairs of left-wing attacks even before he arrives in his new office. As Haaretz’s story on the appointment put it, Dermer is seen by the left as the worst of all possible creatures: a “right-wing neo-con with close ties to the Bush family.”
But rather than seeking to pre-emptively sandbag Dermer in this fashion, the Jewish left should understand that he is ideally suited to be Israel’s ambassador to its superpower ally. Oren, a historian with a better grasp of America’s attitudes toward Israel than virtually anyone else in the Jewish state, was an outstanding diplomat. But Dermer brings to his job the one element most necessary to ensure that misunderstandings between Washington and Jerusalem are kept to a minimum in the coming years. As the person who is as close to Netanyahu as anyone currently working in the prime minister’s office, Dermer will be seen as a direct conduit to Israel’s leader thereby enabling him to play a vital role the U.S.-Israel relationship as efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program come to a head and Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to revive the peace process continue.
Like Oren, Dermer is a native of the United States who immigrated to Israel as an adult. He may be best known here for being the co-author of the best-selling The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror with Natan Sharansky. The book, which puts forward the position that democratic reform is the necessary prerequisite for both peace in the Middle East and any hope for a better life for the Muslim and Arab worlds, was famously embraced by President George W. Bush who said it put into words exactly how he felt about the issue. While this “neo-con” testament is, among other influences, blamed for America’s unsuccessful attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East in the last decade, the truth is, the book is actually quite prescient about the failures of premature experiments in democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority and now in Egypt. Unlike those who fetishize elections as the sole determinant of freedom, Dermer and Sharansky understood that there was more to the concept than casting ballots in the absence of a culture that fostered consensus about democratic values.
But Dermer’s critics dislike more than this one excellent book. They see him as having ties with Republicans that could offend the Obama administration. He was widely, and wrongly, blamed for what many in the press claimed was Netanyahu’s attempt to support Romney in the U.S. presidential election last year. But the spat that erupted between the two countries last September over Netanyahu’s plea that Obama establish “red lines” over the Iranian nuclear threat was more the president’s doing than the prime minister’s. Moreover, Dermer, an American with broad knowledge of the politics of both countries knows, as Oren did, that the primary duty of his new job will be to ensure that the alliance functions smoothly. Anyone who thinks he will be picking fights with the administration, or that the White House and the State Department won’t be smart enough to understand that having direct access to someone with Netanyahu’s ear is in their best interests, knows nothing about diplomacy or how Washington works.
But it should be noted that Dermer’s reputation as a staunch and pugnacious advocate for Israel will be a major asset for him and his country, not a drawback. Dermer has shown over the past few years that he isn’t afraid to speak up about the unfair treatment to which Israel has been subjected. As his famous rebuke in 2011 to the New York Times—in which he refused an offer to have Netanyahu write for its op-ed page because it would have been a fig leaf of fairness after a deluge of critical pieces about the Jewish state—showed, Dermer understands that staying quiet about media bias or distorted views about the conflict doesn’t help. As his own writing illustrates, clear-headed and bold advocacy that isn’t afraid to speak truth to power serves Israel far better than apologetic efforts that don’t address the real problems.
Dermer won’t be as confrontational with Obama and Kerry as he was with the New York Times, but that incident as well as his body of work shows that he understands Israel’s problems in dealing with the world far better than the overwhelming majority of those who work for his country’s Foreign Ministry. In contrast to many of the charming and utterly ineffective persons who have represented Israel abroad, Dermer gets it when it comes to dealing with attacks on his country and the justice of his cause. His eloquent advocacy for Israel’s rights may upset some who see it as always in the wrong, but it’s doubtful that Netanyahu could have made a better choice for this important position.