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Bibi’s Brain: Meet Ron Dermer, Israel’s new ambassador to the U.S.

Ron Dermer, a Florida-born Jew who started in politics working on the 1994 Republican Revolution, is Benjamin Netanyahu’s most influential aide.

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Ron Dermer and Benjamin Netanyahu. (Daniel Hertzberg)

The Prime Minister’s Office, Israel’s equivalent to the West Wing of the White House, is a nondescript complex located in Givat Ram, a neighborhood at Jerusalem’s western edge. Most of the building, which sits in the shadow of the hulking Bank of Israel and the grandly winged Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is given over to bureaucratic departments, but at its heart sits the Aquarium, a block sealed behind a series of passcard-protected glass doors that is the government’s nerve center. It’s where the prime minister—currently, Benjamin Netanyahu—does his business. Netanyahu’s national-security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, works in an adjacent room, and next to that is a modest suite belonging to an American Jew named Ron Dermer. Dermer is the prime minister’s alter-ego, and he has done more to shape Israel’s relationship with the United States, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians over the past few years than any man aside from the prime minister himself.

Dermer’s title is senior adviser to the prime minister, and he’s a jack-of-all-trades—strategist, pollster, and speechwriter for Netanyahu, as well as his chief proxy in foreign affairs. A constant presence in Netanyahu’s meetings in Washington, he has helped shape Israel’s posture in the American capital most notably through Netanyahu’s spring speech to the U.S. Congress, which foiled President Barack Obama’s effort to pressure the prime minister into meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. “Bibi doesn’t move an inch without talking to him,” said one person who has been in meetings with both men.

At 40, Dermer has a full head of dark hair under his small knit kippah and the hyperkinetic energy of a man who is still young. A Wharton-schooled economist and Oxford-trained political theorist with Machiavellian political instincts, Dermer comes across as equal parts George Stephanopoulos and Karl Rove. He is a ferocious competitor who quarterbacked Israel’s flag-football team in the sport’s World Cup three times. “He cannot abide anybody being better at him than anything, particularly physically,” said his friend Tom Rose, a former publisher of the Jerusalem Post. “He wouldn’t let a 3-year-old beat him at Ping-Pong.”

Dermer is in some ways a successor to the Americans and returning expatriates who figured prominently in Netanyahu’s first stint in the Aquarium, from 1996 to 1999. One was David Bar-Illan, the late newspaper editor and Juilliard-trained pianist who served as Netanyahu’s chief spokesman. Dore Gold, the Connecticut-born academic who was Netanyahu’s first-term ambassador to the United Nations and now runs a national-security think tank in Jerusalem, is another.

But the current Netanyahu government is perhaps more Anglo-inflected than any other in Israeli history. Gold’s one-time Columbia classmate, the historian Michael Oren, serves as Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United States, a post Oren renounced his American citizenship to accept. The MIT economist Stanley Fischer governs the Bank of Israel, a position that required him to take on Israeli citizenship and learn some Hebrew. Until last year, Netanyahu’s chief scheduler was a California-born immigrant named Ari Harow, who first met Dermer a decade ago when the two squared off on opposing Israeli flag-football teams.

Yet of all the Americans in the Aquarium, Dermer is uniquely fluent in Israel’s convoluted coalition government system, and he is adept at defending Netanyahu’s partisan flanks. His professional political background gives him another asset: exceptionally deep and longstanding relationships with Washington’s Republican establishment, particularly its neoconservative wing, which are entirely independent of his connection to Netanyahu. The youngest son of a Miami Beach politico, Dermer took a job right out of college in Washington as an assistant to Frank Luntz, the Republican consultant who engineered the watershed 1994 “Contract With America” House campaign for Newt Gingrich. His second was in Jerusalem, as a pollster for the Soviet-dissident-turned-Israeli-politician Natan Sharansky, a connection forged with help from Richard Perle, the Reagan (and, later, George W. Bush) Administration defense specialist.

For a young, ambitious wonk there was no question where the better action was. “In those years—1993, 1994, 1995—public policy was fairly insignificant,” Dermer said in an interview last month in his Jerusalem office. “When I came to Israel the excitement about it was that the decisions ahead of it were so consequential to the future of the country and to the Jewish people.”

He arrived in the shadow of the Oslo Accords and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination to find a country divided: not just between doves and hawks, he said, but between secular and religious Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, between native-born Israelis and newcomers from the former Soviet Union. It was, in other words, exciting. “I wanted to do something where every day I could do what I wanted to do, not something where maybe 20 or 30 or 40 years later I could maybe have some influence on some decision,” Dermer told me, leaning back in his chair. “I wanted to have an impact in some way, and an influence in some way on a country that was making these great historic decisions and that still had to make those decisions.”

Armed with luck and excellent connections, Dermer enjoyed an accelerated ride into the heart of the country’s power structure that would have been difficult if not impossible to match stateside. “He made the right choice,” said Luntz, his former mentor. “He maintains his American sensibilities but he always had an Israeli mind, and he could function there in ways many of us could not. You’ve got to be tough to not just survive but to thrive.”

Dermer still thinks of himself as an American, and he still defines his political decisions by Washington standards. “When I think about Israel, I always ask myself, I call it the WWAD question: ‘What would America do?’ ” he said, smacking the desk with his palms for added effect. “As somebody born and raised in the United States, I have absolutely no doubt that America would take more forceful action if faced by the threats facing Israel.”

Netanyahu, who lived in New York and Philadelphia as a kid and went to college and graduate school at MIT, hardly needs an American like Dermer to help him speak American. Dermer offers the Israeli prime minister something deeper. He embodies the ideal combination of intellectual pedigree, physical prowess, and family commitment prized by Israelis of Netanyahu’s generation. He shares—and, by his choice to become Israeli, affirms—Netanyahu’s conviction about the outsize role that Israel plays in the grand sweep not just of Jewish history, but also of Western history. Perhaps most important, 15 years after moving to Israel, Dermer retains the brash confidence of a born Yankee—a quality that’s harder to pick up than an accent and precious to a politician like Netanyahu, who plainly yearns for his fellow Israeli Jews to feel they share the same superpower birthright as their American cousins.

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Daniella Cheslow says:

What a great illustration. Beautiful.

You criticize Dermer and Netanyahu by saying “some American Jews — Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen and members of the New York Times editorial board — see Dermer’s strategy as a long-term disaster” despite the fact that the strategy these people (NY Times editors etc.) have proposed for the last 30 + years has done nothing to lead to peace – despite their strategies being tried by various Israeli and American governments.

The PLO under Arafat and since then has not been willing to finalize any agreements, such as Clinton’s Camp David proposal (see Dennis Ross’ book for details).

rick geiger says:

Obama is standing on Israel’s side? Really?? When and where? And the idea that Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen and the rest of the Jew hating NY Times has any credibility on this subject is silliness on your part.

Here is what we know for a fact: If this was Sept 2013 and Obama had won re-election in 2012, Obama would be telling the Israeli government he will NOT veto a new terrorist arab state. Obama is not a friend to Jews or to Israel and state that he is makes your writing unserious

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

So long as the PLO adheres to the essence of its Charter, etched deep in the hearts and minds of its leaders, there is little chance of ever reaching an accommodation of peaceful coexistence with the Arabs of Eretz Israel (Land of Israel).

And, sadly, the thrust of the PLO Charter is the motivating factor in the PLO’s attempt to fool all of the world all of the time.

To avoid this predicament we must do three things:

1. Read the Charter and understand the PLO’s goal.

2. Realize that legally, based on the San Remo Conference decisions, 1920, accepted by the League of Nations, 1922, the entire land mass between the River and the Sea was designated as the national home of the Jewish people, and the UN, based on its Charter, can’t change this.

3. Any political accommodation that we reach must include an acceptance by the PLO of Israel as the independent nation-state of the Jewish people; and, an acceptance that a peace treaty represents the end of the conflict and the end of all future demands.

Gerald Gregory says:

When you decide to turn to God the Father for instruction and relie on him. Then you will have the security Isreal needs. Do you remember King David ( the most powful king and found favior with God)decided to # the people of Isreal and God asked him not to. David went ahead and God sent one angle and he corrected the error. Well that’s all God has to send to correct the world If you will turn from your wicked ways and have no other god before the God of Isreal. Then you’ll have safety. Try it.

Gerald Gregory says:

God knows who you are.

philip mann says:

All the Arab leaders remember the assasination of Sadat, and will not budge untill the lowest common denominator of their mob-the street-is happy. So nothing goes anywhere. Ross had it right, and Arafat admitted his fears in that book,The Missing Missing Peace.

And ,Gerald Gregory, it was David`s chief general, Joab,who advised against the census, not G-d. It`s a very puzzling part of Tanakh.

Great story and journalist work!

Though I’m not sure this man deserves such a long profile story. He is not that important or inspiring. He is just there do to Bibi and the Israeli right’s fascination of American “political wisdom”.

Netanyahu’s government is working regularly on re-acting, just like the Obama’s administration. Not the one good initiative between them. That’s why the two countries look as they do theses days.

Stephan Pickering/Chofetz Chay says:

Shalom & Boker tov…my own feeling in reading this interesting profile is that Mr Dermer, like all of us, is a post-Auschwitz Jew. Eretz Yisro’el is not a Judenrat…and much of the nonsense coming from Obama et al. is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness. We are speaking of our survival as a PEOPLE, not a television series written by the fargoyisht of Horrorwood. The discussion of truths stops prudently with the fascists in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. before their parallelism becomes close enough to yield logical and probable conclusions.

“In a nutshell” by Chay.

Must agree with Zvi. Molcho is much more important than Dremer and the Pulizer goes to the person who will get to interview him. Besides, it’s interesting that the military was not mentioned even once. Is this the same Aquarium that we are talking about?

James Pollock says:

Interesting that Dremer’s builder grandfather chose Florida over Israel because the Israelis had regulations to protect the beauty and integrity of their landscape. Miami Beach was built upon Everglades swampland. Essentially it served as an Israeli resource.

Yaffa Dermer says:

To James Pollock:
Please be advised that Ron Dermer’s grandfather was a member of the bricklayers Union in the U.S. He only supervised constructions jobs for other contractors. He loved and protected the beauty and the integrity of landscape. He is the only supervisor who was honored at the end of any job, for example the Miami Museum of Science put a plague in his memory for the fine work he did, or was made an honorary Conch when he supervised the Jail building in Key West. Don’t write lies. Ron’s mother and a very proud daughter.

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

Now, after Obama’s speech at the UN and his meeting with Mr. Mahmoud Abbas, all that the PLO needs to do is to finally accept Israel’s right to be, to exist as the independent nation-state of the Jewish people; and, agree to accept a peace treaty as the end of the conflict and the end of all future demands.

Are they ready and able to so…??!!

Excellent article Tablet Mag! The Sharansky-Dermer-Netanyahu triangle is very interesting. These three men represent an almost unitary ideology that has been a driving force in Israeli foreign policy. I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Dermer had a hand in the new directions taken at the Jewish Agency since Sharansky assumed its chairmanship.

Oh, and thank you Mrs. Dermer for participating in the comments section. You should be quite proud of your son!

Please check out my “on-writing” discussion of this article at http://wp.me/p1O6b1-11

Dan Friedman says:

If you’re going to cite the NYT’s bilious leftist columnists, you should have also noted they’ve been wrong on Israel at every turn.

harvey horowitz says:

Was quite pleased and excited to spot the name of a second cousin,
Ari Harow, who served Bibi while in office last year. Have never met
Ari but am sure he is the son of my cousin Edward who made aliyah with most of the Harows back when the state was very young. My
Uncle Mqrris Harow z”l left behind a distinguished shevet of almost
100 Israeli=America Jews upon his passing some few years ago.

Bibi has a brain, sure, but it’s not this putz.

Bibi’s brain, and Bibi’s backbone, is Avigdor Lieberman, the one, only, and true leader of Israel. G-d and the Torah tells us this.

Lieberman will guide Israel to its place at the pinnacle of the world. Bibi endangers us all.

Jeffrey says:

If Dermer thinks he’s so great at everything, why has he been playing FLAG football. Seems he needs to sink to a lower level in order to feel he’s the “best”. Being an intellectual in Netanyahu’s crowd requires only a silent assent to the ultra-religious crazies and the thuggery of the neocon right. Mr. Dermer, come back to American and play a little real football here!

NancyGene says:

Stephan Pickering, did you even read the article?

karen gordon says:

had a wonderful first wife adi blumberg, whose father in law was very helpful in getting ron into the right circles.

James, Israel had regulations to protect the unions, and possibly the built heritage – no one gave a flying c*** about the landscape in 1948. And furthermore Miami Beach was built on a sand-bar, not Everglades swampland. You are very ill informed.

Papa493 says:

I’m sad to see Oren go. He’s a man of rare quality.

jonitin says:

Great piece. The guy sounds twisted. Like the leadership of Israel. They are so wrong about what Americans will put up with – the Israeli public is going to get screwed. I can’t blame them. They’re in a tough situation. It’s a really spooky situation with what surrounds them. But they’re part of it. And sooner rather than later they going to have to find some way to join the neighborhood. Dermer and Bibi are dependent on keeping Israel a ghetto. Isolated and dependent. It’s sad. And going to hurt the Jewish state.

Hershl says:

Kol hakavod!!

We need such principled, gifted, hard hitting people to represent us in Washington.

From one side he will fight off the traitors of J Street, the self-hating propagandists like T. Friedman, NY Times disciple and columnist, and the anti-Israel goyim who consider Israel to be a pariah among nations.

He will be a fantastic ambassador and make us all proud to be Jews.

And we will support him 100% minus the usual suspects who are well known and whose day of retribution is coming.

Robert Starkand says:

I like this guy.

$10,000 Torah Challenge: Can You Prove That Judaism Does Indeed Pass Thru The Mother?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MLBUvI6a9A

I have someone more qualified

2000

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Bibi’s Brain: Meet Ron Dermer, Israel’s new ambassador to the U.S.

Ron Dermer, a Florida-born Jew who started in politics working on the 1994 Republican Revolution, is Benjamin Netanyahu’s most influential aide.