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 timing was propitious for the young consultant. In early 1999, Netanyahu’s government collapsed, largely over the particulars of the post-Oslo negotiations. The resulting prime ministerial election was, in essence, Israel’s first totally American campaign. Netanyahu brought back his 1996 campaign strategist, Arthur Finkelstein, a veteran Republican consultant who had also worked for the Estee Lauder tycoon Ronald Lauder, a confidant of Netanyahu’s. Labor’s Ehud Barak countered by bringing on the Clinton war room commandants James Carville and Stan Greenberg. Dermer, still only 28, remained in his role as Sharansky’s strategist, focusing on the Knesset elections, where Israel B’Aliyah was faced with a challenge from an upstart Russian named Avigdor Lieberman.
By that time, Dermer was known as the country’s leading expert on the Russian vote, and during the campaign, Sharansky offered his protégé’s expertise to Netanyahu’s faltering leadership campaign. According to Sharansky, Netanyahu was unnerved by the hard news Dermer delivered. “Bibi calls me and says, this guy [Dermer] really hates me,” Sharansky said. “But the next time they met they fell in love.”
The two men had what Dermer described as their first real meeting in the early summer of 2000. By this time, everything was different. Netanyahu had been pushed out of the Aquarium by a landslide vote for Barak, while Dermer was recently widowed. “We hit it off right away,” Dermer said. “In terms of security policy, diplomatic policy, economic policy, I share his views—there are very few things we don’t see eye to eye on.” Netanyahu, who had handed over the leadership of Likud to Ariel Sharon in the wake of his defeat, was already thinking of making a comeback, and he found a willing partner. “I said to him,” Dermer recalled, “ ‘I made multiple visits to Israel before you were prime minister. I lived in Israel while you were prime minister. And I’ve lived in Israel after you were prime minister. And with your predecessor and successor, it was chaos in the country and quiet in the Prime Minister’s Office. And when you were prime minister, it was chaos in the Prime Minister’s Office and quiet in the country.’ I said I was interested in quiet in the country.”
But the outbreak of the Second Intifada, in the fall of 2000, precluded quiet anywhere. Barak resigned, triggering a prime ministerial election between him and Sharon, which Netanyahu sat out, with Dermer quietly advising him. “Bibi found that he was fond of him, and he became almost dependent on his opinions,” said Sharansky of Dermer. Meantime, Dermer found a new public role for himself when Tom Rose hired him to write a weekly column for the Jerusalem Post. “If you write for Netanyahu and Sharansky, you write the speeches of the greatest Jewish orators in the modern day, and it’s safe to assume you’ll be a good op-ed columnist.”
Dermer’s column, “The Numbers Game,” debuted in January 2001. The paper’s editor at the time, Jeff Barak, recalls Dermer zipping up to the Post’s decrepit office in Romema, at the far western edge of the city, on his Honda scooter to drop off his weekly submissions. “He was very young, but you could already see this was a guy with great potential,” Barak said.
The early columns focused narrowly on polls and election results, but by March, Dermer had found his groove, writing increasingly assertive essays on Israel’s civic troubles that cited everyone from Machiavelli and Isaiah Berlin to Asher Ginsberg, the original proponent of cultural Zionism, who wrote under the pen name Ahad Ha’am. These columns anticipate current political issues, and they provide a useful guide to Dermer’s preoccupations and convictions.
Throughout the columns, Palestinian leaders—not just Arafat, but Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti—are branded not just as terrorists but as tyrants bent on fomenting the Intifada to consolidate power in a “corrupt junta.” (Barghouti is currently jailed in an Israeli prison and is seen by some Palestinians as a Nelson Mandela figure.) The willingness of the Left to cooperate with Arafat, Dermer argued in a March 2001 column, revealed its leaders to be lily-livered sellouts, willing to risk Israel’s security and its future for the vague hope of peace:
Slowly but surely, a mounting conviction that time is no longer on our side is sapping our national will. The current peace process has done much to contribute to our national “malaise.” Despite the claims of many of its most vocal supporters, the path that led our leaders to sign the Oslo accords was not marked by hope. In fact, it was beset by fear and anxiety.
He revisited the same idea in January, taking aim at the novelist David Grossman, who Dermer defined as a “self-hater”—language that resurfaced soon after Netanyahu took office in 2009, when Ha’aretz reporter Barak Ravid wrote that the prime minister had called Rahm Emanuel a self-hating Jew:
The Zionist self-haters are different than the anti-Zionists in that the former are as firm in their commitment to a Jewish State as they are to an Arab one. Since they have deluded themselves into believing that the Arab world has accommodated itself to the existence of Israel, to them the core of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict has already been resolved. What is necessary to end the current violence is only to expunge the Israeli sin of “occupation,” a sin that has badly stained their blanched humanitarian consciences. Indeed, they see resistance to the “occupation” as legitimate and believe that returning to the pre-1967 lines will end the conflict and secure Israel’s future.
In the March column, Dermer laid out what, in light of the Arab Spring, turns out to be a prescient vision of the Arab historical dialectic. And he made the case for delaying a peace deal as long as possible:
The truth is that the day is not far off when the Arabs will be free enough to see with their own eyes the path of lies, poverty, and destruction on which they have been led for decades. The truth is that by showing weakness today, we are breathing life into the despotic regimes that rule them and that when the Arabs are free enough to truly govern themselves, they will be free enough to forge a genuine peace with us. If we remain convinced that time is working against us, we will not withstand our adversaries for long. But if we begin to realize that each passing year leaves us stronger and our enemies weaker, then we will restore our faith in ourselves and recapture the internal fortitude that has long been the trademark of our people.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Dermer went to New York on his way to Florida, where he helped his brother David eke out an upset victory for the Miami Beach mayoral seat their father had once occupied—a victory that was won with a last-minute assist from Gov. Jeb Bush. In the Jerusalem Post, Dermer wrote that what struck him back in his native country was not renewed faith or unity, but a new and characteristically Israeli suspicion of strangers—specifically, Arab strangers—as potential enemies. “The prevailing mood I detected,” he wrote, “was best expressed not by the president’s call for Americans to pray in their ‘churches, synagogues and mosques’ but by the refusal of commuters on a Minneapolis flight to fly until three Arab passengers were removed from the plane.” It was a twist on that famous Le Monde headline—“We Are All Americans.” Finally, it seemed to Dermer, we were all Israelis.
Across the West Bank, rallies are planned to support the Palestinian bid for statehood. Israelis fear what will happen if they turn violent.