What does it take to be a great Israeli ambassador to the United States?
The question arises once again following the announcement that Ron Dermer will replace Michael Oren as Israel’s top diplomat in Washington some time this fall.
The job may be one of the most complex diplomatic postings in the world, because the ambassador must fulfill so many functions simultaneously.
Possibly, three of the most important are to nurture healthy relations with the U.S. administration, maintain support for Israel in Congress and look after the crucial relationship between Israel and the American-Jewish community.
Ambassador Dermer faces challenges on all of these fronts. The Obama administration has consented to his appointment because of his close ties to Prime Minister Netanyahu, which promise to be useful if Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks bears fruit. But Dermer must overcome his reputation as a conservative ideologue if he wants to forge good working relations with a Democratic administration. The same is true in Congress where the new ambassador will be welcomed with open arms by Republicans but may face initial suspicion from some on the Democratic side of the aisle.
Since the founding of the state, Israeli ambassadors have labored with great success to cultivate strong relations with both parties and to prevent Israel becoming a partisan issue in U.S. politics. Dermer needs to fully embrace that tradition, endangered since the 2012 presidential election, when Republicans tried unsuccessfully to peel away Jewish votes from Obama by claiming he was an unreliable friend to Israel.
Israel needs all the supporters it can get from both parties - so leaning one way or the other, or even appearing to lean, is not only inappropriate but a recipe for disaster. The fact is, Democrats control the White House and the Senate and demographic trends in the United States are in their favor. So placing all of Israel’s eggs in the Republican basket makes little sense.
In his relations with the Jewish community, the key theme for Ambassador Dermer must also be openness and inclusiveness. This means not only cultivating close ties to the leaders of the traditional communal organizations or but also reaching out inclusively to a wide variety of interlocutors, including all pro-Israel groups, in the spirit of building as big a tent as possible. The ambassador must be a good listener as well as talker, recognizing that a healthy relationship with this most important community depends on open-ended and open-hearted dialogue.
In recent years, a pernicious idea has gained currency among some pro-Israel groups, especially on the far right. They seem to believe that anyone who does not agree 100 percent of the time with every action the Israeli government takes is no friend of Israel. Some go further and claim that anyone expressing even mild criticism should be treated as an adversary. This intolerance is divisive, self-defeating and foreign to our Jewish and American traditions. It needs to be squashed and Ambassador Dermer would be doing Israel and American Jews alike a big favor by disassociating himself from such views.
Any Israeli ambassador must accept the American Jewish community as it is: predominantly progressive on economic and social issues and dovish on foreign policy – in short, stalwart Democratic voters.
Under Ambassador Oren, J Street enjoyed a spirited and intellectually-engaging dialogue. We certainly did not always agree but we valued the exchanges which took place in a spirit of friendship and honesty.
Embassy officials attend and participate in J-Street's events – and we would love to see Ambassador Dermer at our national conference this September, if he has taken up his post by then. He would have the opportunity to interact with more than 2,500 activists, including hundreds of deeply-committed students, who care about Israel’s future and want to see it make peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. In the past couple of years, we have also enjoyed increased access to top echelons of the Israeli government which now recognizes our essential role in speaking for a broad and active constituency within our community, especially among young people.
American Jews do care about Israel, but an overwhelming majority believes that reaching peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution is vital if Israel is to remain democratic and a homeland for the Jewish people.
We look forward to a fruitful and constructive relationship with Ambassador Dermer and wish him success in this most important of positions.
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters correspondent in Jerusalem and Washington, is Vice President for Communications for J Street.
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