Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not turn his back on the bereaved family of a Florida victim of a terrorist attack in the so-called Bank of China affair, Israel's ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said in an interview with the Miami Herald on Monday.
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The dispute surrounding the affair was first publicized in Haaretz in June 2013.
Dermer, considered one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers, officially began his post as ambassador in Washington just a few weeks ago. He was born in Miami, and his father and brother served as mayors of Miami Beach. The interview at the Miami Herald offices was the first major interview he gave the American press since taking up his position.
Dermer explained that Israel has ceased cooperating with the legal procedure in the U.S., which it had itself initiated, by saying that “the strategic relationship between Israel and China is in a different place” than it was at the time the lawsuit was filed.
“Throughout this entire process, I can assure you, the prime minister was focused on the family, all the time,” Dermer said. “The suggestion that the prime minister turned his back on that family is false. It’s false.”
A few years ago, the family of teenager Daniel Wultz from the Miami suburb of Weston filed a lawsuit against Bank of China, with encouragement from the Israeli government. Wultz was 16 when he was killed in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in 2006, following which his family sued Bank of China for its involvement in transfers of money to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
At the time, Netanyahu instructed Israeli security forces to assist the family in the trial, provide its lawyers with classified information and even allow Israeli intelligence officers to testify in U.S. court.
Serving as Netanyahu’s political adviser at the time, Dermer himself was deeply involved in the affair. In recent years he held discussions on the subject with a number of senior Republican congressmen, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who is a relative of the Wultz family, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs and represents Miami. Both Cantor and Ros-Lehtinen are known as sharp critics of the Chinese government.
Dermer’s deputy Jordana Cutler, who heads his office at the Washington embassy, was also involved in the affair. Cutler was in touch with the Wultz family and in April 2012 updated them that Netanyahu had allowed Israeli intelligence officers to take the stand in the case.
Nevertheless, a few months ago, following heavy pressure from the Chinese government and a threat to cancel Netanyahu’s visit to the country, the prime minister decided to withdraw Israeli involvement in the case and not allow the former intelligence officer, Uzi Shaya, to testify in court.
Since then a legal and public battle has been raging surrounding Shaya’s testimony. While the Wultz family and its lawyers have been publicly criticizing Netanyahu and accusing him of deserting them due to Chinese pressure, the family is also trying to legally oblige Shaya to testify in court despite Israel’s refusal.
In the interview on Monday, Dermer said that Netanyahu has refused to allow Shaya’s testimony due to considerations of national security. “If your courts decide that an intelligence official can be subpoenaed to speak in open court about information he received ... how are you going to be able to continue any intelligence relationships with countries around the world?” Dermer said. “So, for sure, Israel cannot allow someone to testify on information he received in an official capacity. There’s no question about it.”
During the meeting with the reporters of the largest Florida newspaper Dermer also spoke of the peace process with the Palestinians. He said that if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agrees to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and respond favorably to its security demands, a peace agreement can be reached within a year.
“The question will be: Do we have someone on the Palestinian side, a leader who’s really prepared to make a historic compromise that will require concessions from him and concessions from Israel? If we have that leader in President Abbas, we will have peace in a year,” said Dermer.
Nevertheless, Dermer was skeptical about Abbas’ willingness to make historic compromises that would enable a political breakthrough with Israel. He asked if anyone in the Palestinian Authority is better suited than Abbas to advance peace, and responded: “That’s what they said about Arafat. They said you’ve got to make peace with Arafat because if you don’t have peace with Arafat you are never going to have it. Now they say it is President Abbas. If you are going to have peace between Israelis and Palestinians it can’t hinge on one person.”