Smiles and Suspicions: When Israel's New Ambassador to the U.S. Met Obama

Ron Dermer, the new envoy, is seen by the White House as the 'brains' behind Netanyahu’s support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The presentation of credentials by foreign ambassadors is usually a ceremonial event that does not arouse much interest. But the presentation of credentials in the White House Oval Office on Tuesday night was different. The ambassador was Ron Dermer – the man considered by the White House, for good or for ill, as the long arm of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington.

This time as well, the event was ceremonial and festive. The official cars from the U.S. State Department Office of Protocol arrived to take Dermer and his family to the White House. Dermer was received with smiles and warm handshakes, his children got to exchange a few words with U.S President Barack Obama, and at the end the new ambassador was photographed with the president.

“I wrote in the White House guest book that I feel honored and proud to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the United States,” Dermer posted on Twitter. “The United States is a country to which the Jewish people owe a great deal, and to which I, who was born in America, feel so grateful. I expect to work with the president and the administration to make the ties between Israel and the United States stronger than ever.”

Dermer introduced President Obama to his five-month-old daughter, Golda, named after the former Israeli prime minister. Dermer tweeted that this was the first time in 40 years that Golda had visited the Oval Room. The Israeli ambassador gave the president a gift – cufflinks with a copy of the relief of a menorah found in the City of David in Jerusalem.

But beneath the smiles there is deep suspicion of Dermer in the White House. Obama and his close advisers recall that Dermer was the “brains” behind Netanyahu’s support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Dermer choreographed Romney’s visit to Israel during the presidential race, when he received the royal treatment from Netanyahu.

Dermer is well aware than the president’s confidants consider him a “suspicious object.” Therefore, before assuming the position, he visited Washington and met with many senior officials in the White House and State Department for talks designed to iron things out and turn over a new leaf.

But the present tension between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran has only increased that suspicion. The U.S. magazine Politico published a long article a few days ago about Dermer and the challenges facing him. It wrote, for example, that the White House believes that Dermer is encouraging members of Congress to oppose the interim agreement with Iran and initiate new sanctions against it, in contradiction to Obama’s position.

Both Dermer and the senior White House officials made great efforts on Tuesday to conceal the tension and give the appearance of business-as-usual. White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough entered the Oval Room during the ceremony and gave apples to Dermer’s four sons. The Israeli ambassador for his part tweeted congratulations to McDonough on his birthday.

Dermer, 42, immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1997, when he was 26. He didn’t serve in the army or do national service. He claims that he went to the draft office, but the army rejected his request. Since moving to Israel, he has been involved in politics – first as an adviser to Natan Sharansky and afterward as Netanyahu’s adviser. For four years, from 2004-2008, he was not in Israel at all, after being appointed by Netanyahu as the Finance Ministry representative in Washington.

Before his appointment as ambassador to Washington, Dermer served for the preceding four years as Netanyahu’s political adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office and was considered his main confidant. He is clearly identified by the Obama administration as a supporter of the Republican Party.

His family in Miami Beach has close ties with the Bush family and especially with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose name has been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

Screenshot from Ron Dermer's Twitter page.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with adviser Ron Dermer, now Israel's ambassador in Washington.Credit: Government Press Office
Screenshot from Ron Dermer's Twitter page.

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