Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Is Planting a Rotten Seed

In cozying up to the Republican Congress, Ron Dermer is serving Netanyahu at the expense of Israeli citizens.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with then adviser Ron Dermer, now Israel's ambassador in Washington.
Government Press Office

WASHINGTON – When Ron Dermer took up his post as Israel’s ambassador to the United States in July 2013, I wrote in Haaretz about the challenges facing him, particularly the need for a representative who could heal the emerging partisan split between Republicans and Democrats over Israel.

Memories were fresh of the 2012 presidential campaign when Republicans tried to turn Israel into a partisan issue, arguing to Jewish voters that U.S. President Barack Obama and the Democrats could not be trusted to act in her best interests. This effort to peel away Jewish votes from Obama largely failed, but the issue was still sensitive when Dermer, a former GOP operative, stepped into his new post.

At the time, I made the point that the key to Dermer’s success would be inclusivity – reaching out to all segments of the American Jewish community and both political parties equally, because Israel needs all the friends it can get. Taking sides in the U.S. political arena would not only be inappropriate, but a recipe for failure.

Sadly, far from healing that partisan divide, Dermer has done much to widen it – and never more than with his role in helping to engineer an invitation from the Republican speaker of the House to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress at the height of an Israeli election campaign.

Even Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace – normally one of Netanyahu’s cheerleaders – was offended by the way the Israeli prime minister inserted himself into a domestic debate between the White House and Congress over America's Iran policy. Wallace said he was shocked by what he called House Speaker John Boehner’s “wicked” move to invite Netanyahu without informing the Obama Administration, especially since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Dermer for two hours the day before the invitation became public – and not once did the ambassador mention the invitation was in the works. 

Dermer’s predecessor Michael Oren, who is now running in the elections with the centrist Kulanu party, also censured the invitation, saying it “created the impression of a cynical political move.” He recommended Netanyahu scrap the visit.

The job of the Israeli ambassador in Washington is to represent his nation – all of his nation – to the U.S. government and people. Dermer, who was just reprimanded by the Israeli Civil Service for forbidden political campaigning, seems to conceive of his task as representing just one Israeli – Netanyahu – while offering him up as a spokesman and ally for the right-wing of the Republican Party.

Since his arrival in Washington, Dermer has made little effort to reach out to progressive Zionists or that vast majority of Jewish Americans who oppose the settler movement, which has flourished under the Likud party's leadership. Under his watch, the Israeli embassy has even gone so far as to withhold invitations from prominent Jewish progressives to its annual Hanukkah party – a gathering that, under previous ambassadors, was always a time for the whole community to come together.

That despite November's mid-term elections demonstrating, once again, that American Jews remain a bedrock Democratic Party constituency. An independent poll by GBA Strategies commissioned by J Street and conducted on Election Day found that Jews voted for the Democratic candidate for Congress by a 69 to 28 percent margin. Asked who they would support in the 2016 presidential election, almost 70 percent named Hillary Clinton, the expected Democratic nominee. By identifying so openly with Republican Congressmen at the exclusion of the Democratic White House, Dermer is effectively marginalizing some 70 percent of the American Jewish community to focus on the minority he personally (and perhaps Netanyahu, too) favors.

At a time of growing diplomatic isolation, Israel only has one firm ally that it can depend on – the United States. Does it really want to further narrow that base of support by depending entirely on Republicans, as Dermer seems to want to do?

In this nation, the electoral pendulum can swing very quickly. In 2005, Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. By 2009, control of all three institutions had switched to the Democrats. Now, as they often do, the parties are sharing power. Yet Dermer seems eager to put all his eggs in the Republican basket. That's foolish, short-sighted, risky and irresponsible.

Alan Elsner is Vice President for Communication at J Street.