Israel’s ambassador to the US was nowhere to be found near Washington for a crucial two-week stretch of Operation Protective Edge, unnamed diplomatic sources told the Hebrew-language Walla! news agency on Thursday.
According to the Walla! report, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy, Ron Dermer, was in Israel for a previously planned vacation with his family in early August. He ended up staying in the country for more than two weeks, during which he advised his boss.
Unnamed senior Israeli diplomats told Walla! that it was “especially egregious” that Israel’s top representative in Washington – the most important and sensitive foreign posting – was not even in the United States at wartime.
“Our ties with the US take on added importance precisely during times like these,” a diplomatic source told Walla!.
“It was during a war, of all things, that the embassy did not have an ambassador, when there were urgent matters that needed to be smoothed out.”
One government official in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post it was not as if Dermer was on vacation, but rather that he was working closely with Netanyahu on issues that related very closely to his job in Washington.
Furthermore, the official said, Dermer’s effectiveness in Washington is a function of his closeness with and to the prime minister.
The Netanyahu government’s frayed relationship with the Obama administration was further strained during the Gaza conflict after The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington had halted a shipment of air-to-ground missiles to Israel last month.
Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who recently completed a nine-month stint as Secretary of State John Kerry’s top envoy to the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, was quoted this week as saying that the Gaza fighting had “a very negative” impact on Jerusalem-Washington ties.
“The personal relationship between the president and the prime minister has been fraught for some time and it’s become more complicated by recent events,” Indyk said.
Walla! cited a senior former diplomat who said that “during war, Israel’s ambassador must be in Washington to serve as the mouth, eyes, and ears of Israel vis-à-vis the administration and American public opinion.”
“This was how things were done during the tenure of [former ambassador] Simcha Dinitz when the Yom Kippur War was going on, all the way through to Danny Ayalon during the Second Lebanon War,” the source is quoted as saying. “The fact that Israel’s ambassador is not in the embassy during wartime is unreasonable.”
Dermer is widely regarded as one of Netanyahu’s closest advisers. According to Walla!, the ambassador participated in diplomatic consultations with the premier during his stay here in Israel. Before being named ambassador to Washington last year, Dermer served as Netanyahu’s chief aide on diplomatic issues.
“Ambassador Dermer was not in Israel for a vacation,” Aharon Sagi, the embassy spokesman in Washington, told Walla! in response. “While he did plan on traveling to Israel with his family for a vacation back home, in light of the prolonged operation in Gaza, he decided to push back his trip.
During the 72-hour cease-fire that went into effect on August 7, he flew to Israel with his family, but he wasn’t on vacation. At the request of the prime minister, from the moment he arrived in Israel until his return to Washington, he worked with [Netanyahu] and his office around the clock.”