To understand the debacle over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to plan a speech to Congress without telling the Obama administration, it’s worth going back more than a decade, to a column written in January 2002 in the Jerusalem Post.
Its author, Ron Dermer, was barely 30 years old and had lived in Israel for less than five years. In the column, he divided Israeli doves into two groups: “the self-haters and the census takers.” Dermer’s example of the former: the writer David Grossman. Grossman had recently published an article noting that Palestinians weren’t the only people to seek liberation through violence. Some Zionists, Grossman noted, had violently resisted occupation by the British. That observation, Dermer declared, placed Grossman “squarely with the self-haters.” In making it, “Grossman displayed a level of historical ignorance not uncommon among Israel’s literary elite.” (What, exactly, was historically ignorant about Grossman’s statement, Dermer never explained).
It takes a certain chutzpah to arrive in a country and soon begin declaring that its literary elite is ignorant and one of its most famous novelists hates himself. But Dermer has never lacked self-confidence. In a 2003 column, he called the claim that settlements impeded peace “mind-boggling,” something believed only by those “suffering from a particularly severe case of delusion” In 2009, he declared the idea of “two states for two peoples” to be “stupid and childish.” (He later clarified that he was only talking about the media’s “fixation” with the idea). The following year, he called the claim that withdrawing to the 1967 lines would improve Israel’s international standing more absurd than “my six year’s belief in the tooth fairy.”
What does this have to do with Bibi’s speech to Congress? The common thread is arrogance. It takes an astounding level of arrogance to appoint as ambassador to your superpower patron a man who the leaders of that superpower have already made clear they dislike and distrust. Yet that’s exactly what Bibi did. As early as 2011, one top White House aide told me that Dermer “could stand some reflection.” Another, off the record, was far harsher. Dermer’s reputation inside Obama world dropped even lower after he masterminded Mitt Romney’s campaign trip to Jerusalem in 2012. Yet despite all this, Bibi named the former Newt Gingrich aide his ambassador to the United States the following year.
And it takes an astounding level of arrogance when the White House already suspects that you’re a Republican partisan to openly act like one. Yet that’s exactly what Dermer has done as ambassador. Last year, he spoke alongside Dick Cheney, Chris Christie and Scott Walker at a Republican Jewish Coalition event hosted by Sheldon Adelson. And now he’s secretly colluded with congressional Republicans to get Bibi invited to Congress so he can attack U.S. President Barack Obama’s Iran policy.
Why do Netanyahu and Dermer act this way? Because they can. Because they pay no real political price. Look at Netanyahu’s own career. In 1989, as deputy Israeli foreign minister, he so angered the George H. W. Bush administration that James Baker banned him from the State Department. After Bibi’s first meeting with Bill Clinton, Clinton reportedly screamed, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” In 2011, after Netanyahu flew to the White House to publicly rebuke Obama for having proposed a settlement with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines plus land swaps, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden privately reprimanded Bibi for his insulting tone.
Yet despite all this, Netanyahu has not paid a serious price. Never during his two stints as prime minister has the United States threatened aid or withdrawn diplomatic support at the United Nations. The Obama administration has made no serious effort to boost his political rivals at home. No wonder Dermer thinks he can get away with insulting the White House. He’s watched his mentor do it successfully his entire career.
It may puzzle some that Netanyahu chose an ambassador to the United States who is not a professional diplomat and who behaves in such undiplomatic fashion. But when it comes to the United States, Netanyahu doesn’t really value diplomacy. He doesn’t need to. He sees himself as the 21st century’s Winston Churchill, the only world leader brave and wise enough to raise the alarm about Iran and radical Islam. He sees ordinary Americans as decent but nave folks who he must instruct about the harsh realities of the world. He sees the Obama administration and its liberal allies much the way Ron Dermer saw David Grossman: as historical illiterates and moral idiots who must not be allowed to stand in his way. And, luckily for him, they rarely do.
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