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.
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.
Across the West Bank, rallies are planned to support the Palestinian bid for statehood. Israelis fear what will happen if they turn violent.