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.
As one long-time observer of Israeli politics noted, “If you look at Ron, you see Bibi.” This week, when the prime minister addresses the member states of the United Nations, amid heated debate and a potential vote on Palestinian statehood, the face the world will see will be Netanyahu’s, but the words they hear—many of them, at least—will be Dermer’s.
In the fall of 1989, when he was 18, Ron Dermer left Miami Beach for the University of Pennsylvania, to study finance and management, figuring he’d wind up on Wall Street. Instead, he eventually found himself drawn to the family business: politics.
Dermer’s father, Jay, a trial lawyer from New York, had made his way to Florida as a young man and in 1967 won his first election as mayor of Miami Beach when he ousted Elliot Roosevelt, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sons. (The New York Times later reported on rumors circulating around town that the city’s voters, an estimated 80 percent of whom were Jewish, wanted to punish the younger Roosevelt for his father’s sins in failing to accept more Jewish refugees from Germany during World War II.) Jay Dermer made himself, briefly, into a national gadfly once the city won the rights to host the 1968 Republican convention, firing off letters to the networks complaining every time an anchor said the gathering was being held in Miami, rather than Miami Beach, a separate city.
Dermer’s mother, Yaffa Rosenthal, was born in Mandate Palestine in 1936 but moved with her parents—Jews who fled Poland and Germany in the early 1930s—to Florida a few years after Israel won its independence. “I think it had something to do with the Histadrut”—the labor unions—“because my grandfather was a builder and didn’t want to be told where he could build,” said Dermer. “And it was the tkufat hatzena, the Austerity Years.”
The Rosenthal family chose Florida, Dermer said, because the weather was good and the red-brick building materials were similar to the Jerusalem stone his grandfather, Joseph, was familiar with. Joseph died when Dermer was a baby, and a few years later, his grandmother, Rivka, moved back to Israel. The family would visit, but all Dermer seemed to take away from the trip was a fear of desert vermin. “My mother tells me I would talk about how big the ants were,” he said. “I guess I was very small.” He says he can’t recall talking much about Zionism growing up. “I don’t remember intense discussions about Israel in my home,” Dermer said. “It was muvan ma’alav, self evident, that you were supportive of Israel.”
In 1984, two weeks before Dermer’s bar mitzvah, his father, Jay, died of a heart attack, at 54. He was buried in New York at Mt. Hebron Cemetery. Dermer, who went to a Jewish day school, reacted by becoming more invested in his Jewish identity—a posture he maintained even once he arrived at Penn, where he helped found the Jewish Heritage Program, an organization devoted to deepening college students’ Jewish attachments that is partly underwritten by Michael Steinhardt, the Jewish philanthropist and hedge fund manager, who graduated from Wharton.
It quickly became clear to Dermer’s instructors that that he wasn’t going to be joining his friends at Goldman Sachs or Salomon Brothers. “I never saw that he had that much interest in finance,” said Luntz, who taught Dermer at Penn. “And it wasn’t politics, it was policy that he was interested in.” Dermer was interested in something else, too. “He likes to win,” Luntz added—so much so that he committed himself to arguing a convincing case when Luntz assigned him to defend the view, in a classroom debate, that Israel should be condemned for its treatment of the Palestinians.
After graduation, in 1993, Dermer headed to Washington with the intention of finding a job at a think tank. That September, when Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat had their historic handshake on the White House’s South Lawn, Dermer was working for Luntz, helping to survey baby boomers about their savings habits for Merrill Lynch. The think tank job never materialized, and Luntz encouraged him to apply for a Thouron scholarship to go to Oxford and study politics. “He was perfect for it,” Luntz said. “The committee likes the idea of a Yank at Oxford, and Ron is as American as they come.” In the run-up to the 1994 congressional midterms, Dermer worked with Luntz and Gingrich on the strategy that eventually became the Contract With America, but he left for England before the election to start coursework for a second bachelor’s degree in politics, philosophy, and economics.
In the spring of 1995, Luntz came up with a new idea: to go work for Sharansky, who was then trying to launch an immigrants’ party, which came to be called Yisrael B’Aliyah, Israel for Immigration. Richard Perle had introduced Luntz and Sharansky, and Luntz immediately called Dermer, who happened to be in Israel for Passover, to introduce him to Sharansky. “I didn’t know him, I hadn’t read his book, and my first instinct was not to work for him,” said Dermer. “Then I went to meet him and changed my mind in about 10 minutes.” The feeling was mutual: Not long after they met, Sharansky recalled, he took Dermer to the municipal swimming pool in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem to swim with his young daughters. “He was like a giant, holding my two girls,” Sharansky said. “And I thought, this is how an American should look, like a giant.”
Over the next year, Dermer spent the generous breaks between Oxford terms in Israel helping Sharansky prepare for the 1996 Knesset elections. The day of the vote, Dermer was in Oxford taking a final exam. “I think it was comparative government, if you can believe it,” Dermer recalled. Soon after, he returned to Israel, and by 1997, he had begun the process of becoming an Israeli citizen. “He was working for the Yisrael B’Aliyah party when he made aliyah—the party of immigrants even attracted an American,” Sharansky told me triumphantly.
Dermer’s friends and family were surprised. “I never thought when I connected him to Sharansky that it would eventually lead to him choosing Israel over America,” said Luntz. Dermer said his older brother, David—who by then had become a Miami Beach city commissioner—tried to talk him out of his decision. “He thought moving was basically cutting off all these other opportunities I could have had in the States,” Dermer said. “But eventually you have to choose when faced with the fork in the road, and I understood that.” The next summer, Dermer cemented his decision by marrying Adi Blumberg, an artist raised in the Old City of Jerusalem whose father, David, was at the time chairman of the Bank of Jerusalem. The wedding was presided over by the rabbinic scholar Adin Steinsaltz.
Across the West Bank, rallies are planned to support the Palestinian bid for statehood. Israelis fear what will happen if they turn violent.