Democrats take aim at 2 ambassadors for the Rashida Tlaib-Ilhan Omar fiasco

“This is the nail in the coffin,” a top Democratic congressional staffer said.

By RON KAMPEAS/JTA
August 21, 2019 19:19
US Ambassador Ron Dermer

US Ambassador Ron Dermer . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel’s ambassador to the US is done in the House, and the US ambassador to Israel may not be far behind.

Multiple Democrats told JTA that Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer’s role in the banning of two US representatives from visiting Israel means he will never get a meeting in a Democratic office again.

Dermer was never beloved among Democrats on the Hill. One reason: he was a Republican operative in the 1990s for a short period. A bigger reason was his role in organizing the speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress in 2015 blasting then-president Barack Obama’s Iran policy.

But the last straw appears to be his role in a decision last week by Israel to ban two Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, from visiting the country. The House majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is especially infuriated because Dermer appeared to assure him that Tlaib and Omar would be permitted to visit. Israel announced the ban a week later, apparently at the behest of US President Donald Trump.

“This is the nail in the coffin,” a top Democratic congressional staffer said.

What’s saving Dermer from what could have been seen by some as an unprecedented humiliation – a formal condemnation by the US House of Representatives – is that it is unprecedented for Congress to condemn an ambassador, and that Dermer and Netanyahu are seen as lame ducks.

Another factor, the senior Democratic official said, was that this was taking place in the throes of August, when most lawmakers are out of town.


“We’re three weeks away from people paying attention around here, and there will be 12 more scandals by then,” the official said.

Multiple Democrats said they did not want to give Republicans and Trump another opportunity to paint Democrats as unfair to Israel’s government and ambassador. Trump has endeavored on Twitter to make Tlaib and Omar the face of their party.

Few Democrats back Tlaib and Omar’s Israel views, and several have condemned their attacks on Israel in strong terms. At the same time, Democrats think Dermer and Netanyahu are going along with Trump’s scheme to paint Democrats as anti-Israel radicals.

DERMER’S US counterpart, Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, may not escape an official reckoning. There is serious talk on Capitol Hill of a formal request to the State Department inspector-general to report on whether Friedman has politicized the role.

In the past, Friedman has suggested that Democrats are not as pro-Israel as Republicans. In this instance, Friedman released a statement on Twitter saying that the United States “supports and respects the decision of the Government of Israel to deny entry to the Tlaib/Omar Delegation.”

By backing Israel’s decision to bar entry to two House members, many Democrats say, Friedman showed disloyalty to one of his constituents: Congress.

“There’s concern with regard to the US government official involved here for politicizing his role and using his diplomatic platform to behave in a way that for the past 2 1/2 years has been very undiplomatic,” said Halie Soifer, director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, who served in the Obama State Department and as a Senate Foreign Relations staffer.

Dermer is especially despised among Jewish Democrats and pro-Israel Democrats for what they regard as partisan disrespect for their office and their pro-Israel bona fides. Jewish Democrats in Congress, who once looked forward to attending Israeli Embassy events, now are less likely to make an appearance.

Until the 2015 Iran speech by Netanyahu, Dermer maintained civil ties with Democrats. Especially galling for Democrats was that Dermer and Netanyahu agreed to a condition of then-speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that the planning be kept a secret (Planning for the speech started in late 2014, and Boehner surprised Democrats and the pro-Israel community with his announcement of Netanyahu’s speech the day after Obama delivered the State of the Union on January 20, 2015.)

Once Dermer worked with Republicans to ambush Democrats, he was seen as partisan.
Those tensions were exacerbated with Trump’s election. Netanyahu and Dermer were seen as running interference for a president whom, according to polls, a majority of Jews blame in part for the spike in antisemitism.

After the October massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh by a militantly anti-immigrant gunman, when some local Jewish officials were reluctant to greet Trump, Dermer stepped in and greeted the president when he arrived. Dermer also spoke out on behalf of pro-Trump figures seen as fueling the administration’s biases, including strategist Steve Bannon and Frank Gaffney, who helms a think tank that liberal groups say stokes Islamophobia.

Hoyer is especially furious with Dermer and Netanyahu, taking the unprecedented step of calling the former a liar in public.

“The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views,” Hoyer said after the ban was announced. “This action is contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.’ That representation was not true.”

A NUMBER OF Democrats and pro-Israel figures say it is unfair to pick on Dermer, and that Trump and Netanyahu are the correct addresses for Democratic anger. Dermer seems to have been thrown under the bus, these defenders say. (Foreign Minister Israel Katz said last week that it was Dermer’s decision alone to tell Hoyer that Tlaib and Omar would be welcome; not a single Democrat believes it, and Netanyahu said that Dermer was correctly speaking for Israel at the time of his statement.)
Hoyer is especially infuriated because he extracted the commitment from Dermer to allow in Tlaib and Omar so that he could talk other lawmakers into joining a trip to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Hoyer got 41 Democrats to go, which is believed to be the highest number ever. Hoyer has led the trip for decades.

Hoyer took the group to Israel, talked up the alliance and declared it a success before he was blindsided by the decision on Tlaib and Omar. While conservative Jewish groups hailed the decision, saying Israel was in its rights to keep out two lawmakers who support the antisemitic movement to boycott Israel, pro-Israel critics said it gave ammunition to those who accuse Israel of being anti-democratic and an unreliable ally.

Asked for comment on Hoyer’s statement, the Israel Embassy directed JTA to remarks by Netanyahu this week in which he said that Omar and Tlaib’s agenda appeared to promote the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel.

“When Ambassador Dermer spoke, there was no specific request regarding these visits; neither was there an itinerary or a specific travel plan,” Netanyahu said. “As soon as these arrived, we checked it and reached the decision that we did. This was a principled, not a partisan, decision. We respect all political parties in the US equally; however, we also respect ourselves.

Whoever comes to impose boycotts on us and to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel, we will not allow them entry.”

Aaron Keyak, a longtime Democratic Hill staffer who is now a consultant to Jewish and liberal groups, said the anger ran deep precisely because of the trust that Jewish and pro-Israel Democrats had long placed in Israel and its governments.

“These are friends going back decades pleading with their friends in Jerusalem and at the embassy not to let this happen,” Keyak said in an interview. “What helps sustain the US-Israel friendships are the person-to-person friendships between our two governments. It was not just the overall relationship that was damaged, it was those personal relationships that were also betrayed.”

Democrats don’t see Israel’s reasoning as credible, as Tlaib and Omar have openly backed BDS since their election last year.

Instead, Trump is seen as being behind the reversal. On August 10, Axios reported that Trump told “advisers” that Israel should ban the lawmakers, and that his views reached “the top level of the Israeli government.” Just before the announcement of the ban, on August 15, Trump said on Twitter that allowing in Tlaib and Omar would show “great weakness.”
Dermer, Netanyahu and Trump have since denied that Trump was a decisive factor.  


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