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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)

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.”

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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.

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