Ambassador Dermer Cut Off From Obama's Staff, White House Entry Logs Show

Data released by the U.S. administration reveals the extent of the disconnect with the Israeli ambassador, but also exposes other interesting White House visitors.

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Barak Ravid
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Infographic by Haaretz
Infographic by Haaretz
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The extent of the disconnect between Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and the powers-that-be in Washington has been highlighted by new data released by the Obama administration.

Examination of the registry that details the one million entry permits issued to the White House over the last 18 months shows that Dermer had precious few meetings with President Barack Obama’s advisers in 2014.

The data do reveal other interesting Israeli visitors, however, such as Benjamin Netanyahu's son Yair, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, retired politician Ehud Barak, TV Channel 2 anchorwoman Yonit Levy, and others.

The registry was published on March 27 by the White House, and included visits to the presidential compound and the adjacent building housing the National Security Council.

The listings constitute a database meant to be used by the White House itself, but since 2012 they have been disclosed to the public following a petition by a nongovernment group of citizens who have resolved to safeguard the ethics of governance – particularly with regard to ties between business and politics.

The registry is incomplete, however, inasmuch as it does not include secret meetings with administration officials that were held elsewhere. The list also excludes meetings removed from the registry due to their sensitive diplomatic or security nature. Furthermore, as in any government bureaucracy, in this case lack of organization and of adherence to procedures likely exist in the White House as well.

Nevertheless, the registry provides an interesting perspective on Israel-U.S. relations, which became tenser than ever in the course of 2014.

Miami-born Ron Dermer started serving as Israel's envoy to Washington in December 2013. For years prior to that, he had been a senior adviser to Netanyahu, eventually becoming one of his closest associates. Dermer immigrated to Israel at the age of 26.

During his years in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, Dermer was a red flag, in the eyes of the administration, due to his close ties to senior Republican politicians. Recently, he became, de facto, persona non grata at the White House, for his part in organizing Netanyahu’s March 3 speech before the joint session of the Congress.

Ever since he assumed his ambassadorial role, administration officials treated him according to the principle of treat your guest with respect, but be wary. In March 2014, Israeli journalist Chico Menashe reported on Israel Radio that National Security Advisor Susan Rice was refusing to meet the ambassador. Several similar reports appeared in the following months. For a long time, the administration and Netanyahu’s bureau attempted to deny or downplay the severity of this situation.

However, looking at the new data concerning visits to the White House, one sees that Dermer has almost no ties with Obama’s senior advisers. From December 3, 2013, to the end of 2014, he visited the White House only 11 times. On only one of these occasions, on June 25, 2014, was there a business meeting with Obama’s senior Middle Eastern affairs adviser Philip Gordon.

Four other visits by Dermer coincided with visits by Netanyahu to the White House, and the rest included the presentation of his credentials and attendance at functions or receptions that included multiple guests.

The absence of an ongoing relationship between the ambassador and the president’s advisers stands out when compared to the number of visits held by his No. 2 man, Reuven Azar, deputy chief of mission to the Israeli Embassy, since assuming his job in the middle of last year. Between July and December of 2014, Azar entered the White House 10 times, eight times for business meetings with Obama's or Vice President Joe Biden's senior staffers. The purpose of two other meetings was unclear, based on the published information.

Even though the deputy head of mission has held several meetings with senior National Security Council staff at the White House, the new data show that very few meetings took place between any official representative of the Israeli government and senior advisers belonging to Obama’s inner circle – such as National Security Adviser Rice; her deputy, Ben Rhodes; or chief-of-staff Denis McDonough.

Left-wingers welcome

Indeed, the registry information shows that the only senior Israeli official who met Rice during the whole of 2014 was her counterpart in Jerusalem, the prime minister’s national security adviser, Yossi Cohen. Apparently there were two such encounters, in addition to three visits as part of Netanyahu’s entourage during meetings with President Obama.

Another senior Israeli who managed to meet a member of Obama’s inner circle during the period in question was opposition leader Isaac Herzog. On September 9, 2014, he met the White House chief-of-staff McDonough for just over an hour.

The registry of entries records a few more Israelis who came to the White House during that year: On March 3, 2014 at 7:05 P.M., several hours after a meeting between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, his son Yair entered the White House. The stated objective of the visit was to tour the grounds. His guide was Zaid Hassan, from the White House’s public relations department. After two and a half hours, he left the premises.

On May 7, 2014 at 3 P.M., former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak entered the White House. No longer in office for some time, he met with Vice President Biden for almost an hour.

On December 5, 2014 at 12:27 P.M., Israel TV Channel 2's anchorwoman Yonit Levy came to see one of Obama’s inner-circle members, deputy NSC director Rhodes. Their meeting lasted for just over an hour.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman appears on the list only once: On December 5, 2013, he attended a reception given by President Obama and his wife Michelle, which was attended by many people. Lieberman was in Washington at the time while attending the Saban Forum conference.

On November 25, 2014, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi came to the White House to meet senior Middle Eastern affairs adviser Philip Gordon.

Another Israeli visitor to the White House was Israel Defense Forces Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad, head of the political-defense wing of the Defense Ministry. In October 2014 he met with Vice President Biden’s National Security Adviser Colin Kahl, and with the senior director for the Levant, Israel and Egypt at the NSC, Yael Lampert.

Moreover, the newly published records show that between May 2012 and August 2013, Gilad met with the president’s special assistant for Russia and Central Asian affairs at the White House, Alice Wells. It is unclear what the background for these meetings was.

Looking into the records of the entry permits reveals that several heads of leftist Israeli not-for-profit groups also visited the White House during 2014. At the end of October there was a visit by the head of the Geneva Initiative group, Gadi Baltiansky, followed the next day by a visit by the head of Friends of the Earth Gidon Bromberg. They met separately with Maher Bitar, director of Israeli-Palestinian affairs at the White House.

On December 2, left-wing activist Danny Zeidman, whose main interest is problems related to Jerusalem, met with adviser Gordon. On December 9, attorney Michael Sfard from the Yesh Din human rights group, met NSC Mideast adviser Lempert.

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