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.
That idea runs through the book Dermer eventually wrote with Sharansky, The Case for Democracy, which casts the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership as a front in the global struggle between free societies and tyrannical ones. The book draws a distinction between free societies and “fear societies”—a turn of phrase Sharansky credited to Dermer—and, at the end, lists Arab dissidents who deserved support from the West in their efforts to move their countries toward freedom. “He took my Dostoevsky language and turned it into American English,” Sharansky told me. The book came out in November 2004 to rave reviews from George W. Bush, who invited the authors to the Oval Office a few days after the presidential election. Bush, in a January 2005 interview with C-SPAN, said he recognized the Dermer name right away: “I knew Mayor Dermer, because he happened to be a Democrat mayor supporting my candidacy for the presidency, and so I kind of had the full-circle view.”
That spring, nearly a decade after arriving in Israel, Dermer was dispatched to Washington in his first official government capacity, as the Israeli Embassy’s minister for economic affairs, under the auspices of Netanyahu, who was then serving as minister of finance under Ariel Sharon. Taking the job required Dermer, at 33, to give up his American citizenship. By then he had remarried—his wife, Rhoda, is a Yale-trained lawyer—and become a father. In a column for the New York Sun, Dermer offered a public goodbye: “I will never renounce America or its people. As a faithful son of America, I will never betray its ideals. In serving the State of Israel and in working to secure our common future, I will champion those ideals all of my life. May God forever bless America.”
When Netanyahu finally returned to the Aquarium in March 2009, it was thanks to lessons Dermer learned from Barack Obama. Originally given a two-year contract in Washington, Dermer wound up staying three years. (Though only after a public firestorm erupted over the initial decision by a Kadima minister not to grant him an extension, reportedly because of Dermer’s close ties to Netanyahu.) The extra time in the United States gave Dermer the chance to watch how Obama’s team managed to mobilize millions of new or previously disaffected voters with a message of change—a strategy Dermer promptly replicated for Netanyahu when snap elections were called in Israel that winter.
Dermer oversaw the development of a campaign website that closely mimicked Obama’s and then hired two media consultants fresh off the Obama campaign, Bill Knapp and Josh Isay (who also worked for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and described himself earlier this year as a Koch liberal). “We wanted to learn from the best,” Dermer told the Associated Press.
The Likud-led coalition that Netanyahu cobbled together, after weeks of horse-trading, is, in Dermer’s own estimation, the most right-of-center government in Israel’s history—at least on paper. “To say Israel simply went to the right is to not understand what has happened,” Dermer said when we met. “Netanyahu has essentially moved the Likud to the center. He says peace is possible, but you have to have security arrangements that are ironclad.”
To underscore that idea, Dermer and others in Netanyahu’s circle, including Dore Gold, have lately taken to pointing to the final speech Rabin gave to the Knesset before his assassination. In it, Rabin laid out his vision for autonomous Palestinian rule. “We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority,” Rabin declared. “The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond lines which existed before the Six Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.”
In our conversation, Dermer suggested I read the speech immediately after reminding me of Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, in which the prime minister publicly committed to a two-state solution—a statement Dermer described to reporters at the time as evidence that his boss had crossed a personal Rubicon. In our meeting, Dermer argued that the problem now lay with the refusal of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Arab leaders to make the equivalent leap and recognize Israel as a Jewish state. “What we’re seeing is the Palestinians not moving an inch from their original position in 15 years,” Dermer said. “The prime minister today is to the left of Rabin. I don’t know if that’s going to help him in the Likud too much but he’s to the left of where Rabin was when Rabin made that speech.”
But then, a few minutes later, Dermer reached for the kind of uncompromising line that seems to inflame his counterparts in Washington. “It’s not a territorial conflict,” he told me. “The question is what kinds of risks will Israel confront before people get that it’s not a territorial conflict. We left Lebanon, we left Gaza, and now the world says, ‘Walk back to 1967 lines and you’ll have peace.’ And we know this is not the case. So sometimes you have to take a stand.” A few minutes later, he elaborated on the point: “There are certain people in the United States, in the Jewish community, who are frustrated. But with all due respect, the most frustrated people with not being able to find a peace settlement with the Palestinians are the Israelis themselves. People say, ‘We’re very frustrated.’ I get this from Europeans all the time. We’re very frustrated. Well, great. I’m glad you’re frustrated. But we get 12,000 rockets landing on us, and if we make a stupid decision we pay the price.”
Over the past year, Dermer has assumed an increasingly critical, albeit behind-the-scenes, role alongside longtime adviser Yitzhak Molcho, a lawyer who is Netanyahu’s chief peace negotiator. He serves as a key bridge to Washington—not just to the Obama Administration, but to the network of think-tank analysts and former government officials who collectively determine the conventional wisdom on U.S. policy toward Israel. Many of those people have not been shy about expressing their growing disdain for Netanyahu’s, and by extension, Dermer’s tactics, especially since May, when the prime minister and the president met for an uncomfortable joint Oval Office session in which Netanyahu railed against Obama’s reference to 1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations.
As New York’s John Heilemann wrote earlier this week, there is a view, which dates back to the late 1990s, that Netanyahu is simply a “small-minded politician” beholden to his coalition. Over the summer, as the Obama team seemed to run increasingly short on patience, there was a corollary view articulated by left-leaning Israelis as well as American Jews on both sides of the aisle, that perhaps Dermer wasn’t getting a clear read on the American mood from his perch in Givat Ram. “It doesn’t help that they’re talking to the echo chamber here,” said the person who has been in multiple meetings with Dermer in Washington and Jerusalem. “They have this arrogance that they don’t need Michael Oren to tell us what the situation is, they don’t need the embassy, they don’t need experts in American politics because they are American.”
And yet, here we are: The Obama Administration is standing steadfastly by Israel’s side, promising to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations should it come up for a vote in the Security Council. In the wake of the Arab Spring, and with the future course of negotiations potentially in the balance, the speech that Dermer is preparing Netanyahu to give at the United Nations this week will cement the adviser’s influence on history.
Whether that influence will ultimately be beneficial for the State of Israel, the United States, or the Jewish people remains to be seen. While 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, it is clearly succeeding, at least in the short term. Despite repeatedly provoking diplomatic embarrassments for the Obama Administration, Netanyahu has paid no price in terms of the benefits the U.S. government is willing to extend, and has not, aside from the temporary settlement freeze, had to give up any ground, figurative or literal. Which suits Dermer, an occasional chess player, just fine. “Ron is a tough pragmatist, and pragmatists like concrete details,” observed one person close to Netanyahu’s circle. “Right now, Bibi and his team can’t see how the chess board will look in a few moves. They have no visibility. So, their best move is to delay.”
Across the West Bank, rallies are planned to support the Palestinian bid for statehood. Israelis fear what will happen if they turn violent.