BOSTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Ron Dermer, his closest adviser, as Israel's ambassador to the United States, has been getting heat as a seemingly undiplomatic choice for Israel’s number one diplomatic post.
Dermer, who was born and raised in America and has had a long association with the Republican Party, was the one reportedly behind Netanyahu’s public and ultimately embarrassing embrace of Mitt Romney during the U.S. presidential election. Dermer has also been openly skeptical of peace efforts with the Palestinians and of the prospect of a future Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, although it’s the stated policy goal of the Israeli government.
Foreign policy analysts who follow U.S.-Israel relations closely say it’s important not to read too much into the tea leaves of the new appointment, but do wonder how Dermer might adjust his hardline ideology to his new role in Washington.
“Given that the administration has undertaken this push (toward peace efforts) with the president visiting Israel in March, appealing to young Israelis to support peace, and Secretary Kerry’s speech to the AJC calling on American Jewish constituencies for their support, I'm curious to see how Ambassador Dermer will engage with these efforts,” said Mathew Duss, a policy analyst at The Center for American Progress.
“There may be something deliberate in choosing someone to the right of the prime minister,” said Heather Hurlburt, former special assistant and speechwriter for President Bill Clintonand Executive Director of the National Security Network, a think tank specializing in defense policies. “We are going to have to wait and see.”
But Hurlburt said it was important to remember that ambassadors are often chosen by a country's leader for domestic or personal reasons - even if they seem, from the outside at least, to be a curious diplomatic fit.
“Everyone in Washington understands that heads of government like to appoint ambassadors they feel comfortable with,” said Hurlburt. “I would not over-interpret it and people in the administration would not over-interpret it.”
“Everybody gets that and regardless of who is appointed it looks to me that peace process policy is being decided on from the prime minister’s office and not from Washington,” she said.
The fact that Dermer has been Netanyahu’s right-hand man for policy and strategy is a plus for those in Washington looking for an ambassador with more influence in Jerusalem than some have had in the past.
“When I worked at the White House we were on the phone daily to the prime minister’s bureau and that kind of relationship makes it very challenging to the ambassador because he’s supposed to be the voice on the ground speaking for the government,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official who has worked with Dermer. “The fact that Ron comes straight from the prime minister’s office gives him extra firepower as ambassador because everyone knows he has direct access to the prime minister in Jerusalem.”
Danin worked with Dermer extensively while heading the Jerusalem mission of the Quartet Representative, Tony Blair, from 2008 to 2010. Previously they worked together when Derner was economic envoy in the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
“More important than any baggage a person brings is the openness and sophisticatedness of that person, and I think he’s very politically astute and knows that in coming here he will face these questions and challenges from day one. The question is how he will show that he is representing the State of Israel and the government of Israel and that he is not there to advance his own personal agenda. I have no doubt he knows how to do that,” said Damin.
Dermer, 42, grew up in Florida where first his father, and many years later his brother, became mayor of Miami Beach. Although he comes from a family of Democrats, he got his start in politics in 1994 working for Frank Luntz, the influential Republican consultant who masterminded the “Republican Revolution”- the watershed election victory that gave the Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. By 1996, Dermer was Natan Sharansky’s key pollster and adviser and had moved to Israel where he immigrated the following year. His Republican ties have remained strong over the years, particularly, it is reported, to its neoconservative wing.
The Netanyahu-Romney “bromance," as some described it, made for awkward relations within already-strained ties between the prime minister’s office and the Obama administration. Obama’s visit to Israel in March was meant to signal a reset of the relationship.
Although while there, Obama appeared to reach above Netanyahu’s head to appeal directly to the Israeli public to work for peace, telling a large crowd in accented Hebrew, “Atem Lo Lavad," meaning “You are not alone.” It could have been interpeted as a message of general reassurance but also a tacit jab at Netanyahu’s right-wing government for being mostly absent when it comes to peace efforts.
“And Netanyahu has now sent a group of American Jewish Republicans a message, ‘Atem lo lavad.’ It’s his reciprocal gesture, but to a very narrow constituency,” said Daniel Levy, a senior research fellow of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.
Dermer will be following Michael Oren as ambassador, and according to some reports, Dermer agitated to force Oren, a historian, out. Oren is also an American immigrant to Israel.
The choice of back-to-back American-born ambassadors might say something about how Netanyahu views the job, Levy said.
“It seems to say he sees this as a hasbara role,” said Levy, using the Hebrew term for what essentially means explaining Israel’s side of the story. “These people arepeople who speak 'American,' both of them are American. Bibi himself is thought of as an Israeli who speaks American. And these two are both perferct to send out to the media, to the Jewish community.”
“This is not about a relationship that is to deliver breakthrough diplomatic moments - no one could accuse Netanyahu of sending Oren or Dermer there for that,” said Levy. “He’s another CNN ambassador.”