Israeli Ambassador Dermer's Seder Guest List Is Finally Revealed, and It Contains No State Secrets

For two years, the Foreign Ministry and ambassador to Washington spent much effort and resources to prevent the publication of the list, a fight that made it to the Supreme Court. The list points to the state's cheap use of the slogan 'national security.'

Olivier Fitoussi

The Foreign Ministry on Wednesday gave Haaretz the guest list from the second Seder night held over two years ago at the house of Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to Washington. The list was released a month after the Supreme Court ruling on the subject.

Publication of the list does no harm to Israel's foreign relations, nor does it unveil closely-kept secrets. What it does expose is the foolishness in the conduct of the Foreign Ministry and Dermer himself, the cheap use they make of the slogan "national security," and their contempt for the public and the taxpayer's money.

In April 2014, Haaretz asked the Israeli ambassador to Washington for details on the Seder held at the ambassador's residence, in which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took part. The embassy refused to provide the details, and the Foreign Ministry rejected Haaretz's request (which had been based on the freedom of information), arguing that Israel's foreign relations would be hurt. 

Only a protracted legal battle, which reached the Supreme Court headed by President Miriam Naor in November 2015, led to the ruling that forced the Foreign Ministry to hand over the guest list. The ministry was also hit with legal costs of 10,000 shekels (about $2,600). 

The guest list contained 24 names. Ten other relatives of Dermer's who were present were minors, so their names were not included. The 24 were all Americans or Israelis and a swift glance shows nobody whose name is sensitive diplomatically, militarily or otherwise. The actual content of the list casts the ex parte discussion that the Foreign Affairs Ministry demanded be held behind closed doors, and received, during the Supreme Court sitting, in a ridiculous light, not to say, utterly insane. 

That swift glance is enough to show that publication of the list has nothing whatsoever to do with national security. 

participants at Ambassador Ron Dermer's Seder dinner in Washington.
Haaretz

Two of the participants were the hosts: ambassador Dermer and his wife Rhoda Pagano-Dermer. The Israeli Defense and Armed Forces attaché to Washington, Maj. Gen. Yaakov Ayish and his wife Dalia were present as well; Kerry was guest of honor; with him came David Thorne, who had been the U.S. ambassador to Italy and from 2013, and is one of Kerry's senior advisers; and Jonathan Finer, at the time deputy chief of staff for Kerry and today, his chief of staff.

Other participants included the businessman and billionaire Tim Collins, who had been advising Kerry on developing the Palestinian economy, and his wife; two rabbis - David Saperstein, then a leading member of the U.S. Reform movement and Marc Saperstein, a professor of Jewish history; and the evangelist of the right, Gary Bauer and his wife Carol.

Many of the participants were the Dermers' relatives and friends of the Dermers, for instance Liron and Rebekah Kochavi, relatives of the ambassador from Westminster, Colorado, or Beverly and Rachel Pagano, relatives of Rhoda's. Real estate broker Carolyn Amesse and jeweler Tamar de Vries were in attendance as well. 

Another name in the list may simply have been misspelled - Jonathan Tobi, who may have been Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary, a neo-conservative monthly magazine.

The ambassador's Seder meal was also graced by three American reporters: NBC's Andrea Mitchell, the Washington Post's deputy opinions editor Jackson Diehl, and his wife Jean, the reporter and writer Richard Miniter, who wrote a series of books on U.S. national security.  

This fact sheds an even stranger light on the claim by Dermer and the Foreign Ministry, in court, that the publication of the list could ostensibly hurt Israel's foreign relations. If this was the case, the ambassador is responsible for the damage by ostensibly revealing state secrets to foreign journalists.

Over the last two years, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and Dermer have invested much effort and resources in preventing the list's exposure. Lawyers working for the state and the Justice Ministry burned the midnight oil, preparing to persuade the court against accepting Haaretz's motion. The clerics of the North America branch at the Foreign Ministry labored for long hours on preparing classified documents that were submitted to the court, and Israel's deputy ambassador to Washington, Reuven Ezer, flew to Israel specially to participate in the Supreme Court hearing. All this was paid for by the public and taxpayer, all in the name of denying the public the right to know.

Judge Daphne Barak-Erez who wrote the Supreme Court majority opinion said that the norm in Western countries like the U.S., Britain or Canada is that the state authorities deliver information like guest lists at their own volition, or immediately upon being asked for the information – without need to motion courts. 

In other words, she was saying that under normal circumstances, this whole affair should never have reached the Supreme Court.

The Foreign Ministry, however, in its bizarre and unintelligent position, did not entirely waste the court's time. Dermer too, with his egotistical and vengeful conduct towards critical reporters and news organizations, ultimately did great service to Israeli democracy. By virtue of the fact that the ambassador and his superiors decided to fight against this windmill, the Israeli public won a Supreme Court precedent, that will have dramatic implications for the norms of transparency in Israel, and the way the government will treat the freedom of information in the future.