What Ron Dermer’s appointment could mean for U.S.-Israel relations
By: Geoffrey Levin
In a surprise move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has reportedly decided to appoint senior advisor Ron Dermer to replace Michael Oren as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Though most Israeli political analysts had not predicted the selection, that is not to say that Dermer is a poor choice on Netanyahu’s part; on the contrary, the American-born Dermer, a former Minister of Economic Affairs at the embassy in Washington, is a strong candidate for the position. Rather, the Dermer appointment raises questions about Netanyahu’s agenda because of his closeness to the Prime Minister — what are the implications of Netanyahu’s decision to send his most trusted aide overseas?
For those who are unfamiliar with Ron Dermer, I recommend taking a look at the excellent profile on him published by Tablet Magazine last year — the article’s title, “Bibi’s Brain,” says a lot about the perceived nature of Dermer’s role. In short, the 41-year-old Dermer, born in Miami Beach to a family prominent in local Democratic politics, rose quickly in his adoptive country. Even before receiving Israeli citizenship in 1997, Dermer worked as a political advisor to Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. His relationship with Sharansky culminated in a co-authored book, The Case for Democracy: The Power to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, a masterfully written bestseller that won the accolades of sitting U.S. President George W. Bush. In 2005, Netanyahu, then serving as Israel’s Finance Minister, sent Dermer to Washington to serve as the Minister of Economic Affairs at the Israeli embassy there.
Since Dermer’s return to Israel in 2008, he has become known as Netanyahu’s right hand man, advising the Prime Minister on matter related to domestic politics, foreign policy, Palestinian affairs, and relations with the United States – an issue that helped sink Netanyahu’s reelection prospects in 1999, when the extent of his clashes with the Clinton administration became a matter of public concern. At first glance, some American analysts may claim that Netanyahu is doing little better in this regard, particularly after his alleged support for Mitt Romney’s candidacy and increased support for settlements further tarnished Bibi’s already fragile relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama. But compared with the late 1990’s, Netanyahu’s dispute with the President has not translated into a loss of support among the Israeli public. This can be attributed in part to a changed Israeli electorate, and to the unique relationship President Clinton forged with the Israelis after the Rabin assassination. It is also because Netanyahu largely succeeded in the difficult task of maneuvering between Obama’s request and his rightist coalition in 2009-2010, when the President put peace negotiations higher on the agenda. It’s impossible to know who exactly is responsible for Netanyahu’s relative political success since 2009, when his party won only 21.6% of the vote, but if Dermer is as influential as they say he is, he likely played a key role in Netanyahu’s strategizing.
As a Netanyahu insider, Dermer contrasts with the current ambassador, Michael Oren, who cultivated an independent profile as an academic. But one similarity between Bibi’s two selections for the post stands out – both Oren and Dermer are American-born, with Oren having only renounced his citizenship upon taking the post in 2009. As the only Prime Minister who went to both high school and graduate school in the United States, Netanyahu is well aware of how public relations work in the country, and appears to believe that having a relatable ambassador in Washington is an asset. He knows that the youthful and articulate Dermer will be perfect for American ears, just as Netanyahu himself was as a 35-year-old U.N. ambassador in New York.
Also unlike the relatively moderate Oren, Bibi must know Dermer’s rightwing record is not ideal for Obama — this is an appointment that will do better in public diplomacy work, more adept for speeches and relations with Congress and the general public. That is not all that Dermer offers. Since the foreign minister is a politically-negotiated position not a general appointment, the ambassador to Washington is arguably the most important diplomatic appointment Netanyahu can make — akin to Obama’s choice of Secretary of State — and the Dermer pick indicates that American-Israeli relations will be both a priority and challenge with the next term. He will also serve as Bibi’s stethoscope to the heart of the American government, as the Prime Minister knows his next coalition will make his tightrope next term even trickier than the past. Acting as his direct line to Obama, Dermer will be there to tell the U.S. what Bibi really means, beyond the rhetoric that he must use to tame his rightist coalition — translating and contextualizing Netanyahu’s attempt to somehow fend off global isolation while placating his own hawkish party and perhaps even confronting Iran.
It is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu would not send his favorite advisor to another continent unless he felt had to. If this appointment is any indicator, Netanyahu is preparing for a third term in which maintaining U.S.-Israel relations will be trickier than ever before.
Update: JTA reports a denial by the embassy that Oren plans to retire. But in a related article, the publication noted that the Prime Minister’s office remained silent, suggesting that the leak might be a “trial ballon” – a hint from Netanyahu that Dermer may well be the next ambassador, but just not yet.
Geoffrey Levin is a Senior Editor at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
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