WASHINGTON – Israel has spent nearly $750,000 housing Ambassador Ron Dermer and his family in a rented home since 2013, because he was unhappy with the condition of the official residence and its distance from his Orthodox synagogue.
The State of Israel owns a once elegant house in the leafy, northwest Washington suburb of Forest Hills. The residence has housed many Israeli envoys since being built in the 1960s – including Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren. But since moving to D.C., Dermer and his family of seven never lived in the property.
According to a few informed sources Haaretz spoke to, Dermer said the property was too small for his needs and situated too far from his synagogue.
As a result, the taxpayer has paid rent for an alternative residence – a house almost identical in size to the “official” residence. It also required multiple visits to Washington by Israeli officials from the foreign and finance ministries, in order to examine the state-owned property and ascertain whether it was still fit for purpose. After deciding that it wasn’t, it took officials nearly three years to submit a permit to demolish the house – during which time it remained empty.
A former Foreign Ministry official said the ministry’s behavior in the affair was unsurprising. “The state should have made sure that the residency would not stand vacant for so long,” he said. “But since it is public money, the financial consideration hardly exists.” Instead, he said, “it gave an excuse for all sorts of officials to visit Washington.”
The official residence is situated on an unprepossessing, tree-lined street adjacent to Rock Creek Park. It had welcomed officials and their guests for decades, including U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during his negotiations with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in June 1975.
The Forest Hills neighborhood is popular with local families and diplomatic ministers: a several-block radius includes the homes of envoys from Italy, Kuwait, Senegal, Malaysia and Iraq.
Outside the white-painted house, a torn Israeli flag flies at full mast, with neighbors saying it has been untended for nearly four years. A metal plaque affixed to the wall still lists it as belonging to the “Embassy of Israel.”
The Dermer family live about 5.5 kilometers (3.5 miles) away, in the Kenwood neighborhood, over the district line in Maryland. Amenities at their house, built in 1936, include a luxury kitchen, five bedrooms, 5.5 bathrooms, four levels, a living room, library, formal dining room, master suite, recreation room, office and outdoor living area that is adjacent to the kitchen.
A property listing for the house discloses there is lead-based paint in the home, as surveyed by the state and federal government.
The property has actually been on the market since April 21, with an asking price of $3,050,000 (it was also previously listed in 2015, but failed to find a buyer).
Both the state-owned residence and Dermer’s house are similar, but with one big difference: While the official residence is tax-exempt and state-owned, Dermer’s Kenwood home currently costs $16,000 per month (or $192,000 a year) to rent, said the agent overseeing the sale.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said the rental cost of the house was $14,000 per month in the first year, rising by $1,000 each subsequent year – a total of $744,000 over Dermer’s four years in Washington. Property taxes for the residence were $34,840 in 2017.
Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who also controls the Foreign Ministry) asked to extend Dermer’s tenure in Washington by an extra year. His request stressed the value of Dermer’s ties to members of the Trump administration, and cabinet ministers are currently mulling the decision. If approved, this would make Dermer Israel’s longest-serving ambassador to the United States for nearly 50 years – and one of the most costly. A one-year extension would bring the total rent paid to about $950,000.
Like Dermer’s home in Maryland, the state-owned residence is a five-bedroom property on nearly half an acre of land (the embassy property is on 0.41 acres, while Dermer’s is 0.42 acres). Square footage for the D.C. property is 18,000 square feet (1,672 square meters), while the Maryland residence is 18,399 square feet.
Asked why Dermer did not move into the state-owned residence, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said that following the ambassador’s arrival in the United States in the summer of 2013, the house was inspected by the finance and foreign and ministry officials who came from Israel to examine it. According to Nahshon, four months later, the house was deemed uninhabitable, and it was recommended that Israel raze it and build a new residence on the site.
“The house was built in the 1960s, and after more than 50 years its maintenance condition was bad,” explained Nahshon, adding, “All the infrastructure was rotten, and mold had spread all around the house.” It should be noted, however, that Dermer’s current residence is about 30 years older than the Israel-owned house.
After almost three years in which the official residence stood empty, the State of Israel submitted a request to demolish it and build a new house in its place. A permit request filed with the local government on June 21, 2016, listed the property as not vacant. The form specifies that a building must be vacant before the raze (demolition) permit can be issued. However, an employee at the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Office confirmed that his office approved the raze permit on September 8, 2016.
The firm overseeing the project, Newman Architects, confirmed that the raze application has mostly been approved by D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and relevant agencies, but it is awaiting a final permit and the hiring of a general contractor to implement it. The building project is expected to take between 12 and 14 months, once a contractor is chosen by the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
Nahshon refused to answer questions about how many ministry officials came over to Washington to inspect the residence.
Katherine Doyle co-wrote this article.