WASHINGTON — “I was with him when…” was the theme of Ron Dermer’s speech
to the 2009 American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.
used the phrase five times in the first five minutes of the speech — the “him”
being Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I can shed a little insight into the mind of
the Israeli prime minister,” Dermer told the crowd. “Because on that I’m
something of an expert.”
Two elements of the address, made just weeks
after Netanyahu assumed office, explain Dermer’s ascension this week to the
country’s most important diplomatic post, the ambassadorship to
Dermer has a closeness to Netanyahu so steadfast that it does
not inhibit his brashness in boasting about it. And Dermer utterly buys into
Netanyahu’s most cherished notion about himself — that he has been right when
others have been wrong.
“He’s a man of basic core convictions who has
time after time been willing to stand against the current when it was not
popular,” Dermer told AIPAC.
Born to a family of conservative Democrats
in Miami — his father and brother are both former Miami Beach mayors — Dermer,
42, served as Netanyahu’s top adviser from his assumption of office in March
2009 until his new term began in March of this year.
But Dermer is known
for more than just loyalty to his boss. His reputation is as a brash political
player dismissive of those with whom he disagrees.
He is rumored to be
the one responsible for news stories about Obama’s supposed snub of Netanyahu
during his 2010 White House visit. And Obama administration officials believe he
was behind Netanyahu’s perceived tilt toward Mitt Romney in last year’s
“To me, it’s not an ideal choice as he’s seen as
extremely political and as someone who has repeatedly gone to the press with
negative stories,” a former Obama administration official told JTA. “You want
someone trusted and discreet to be your ambassador.”
raised eyebrows when his name first surfaced earlier this year as a possible
replacement for Michael Oren, the historian turned diplomat who will wind down
his tenure in Washington this fall. But leaders of mainstream Jewish groups,
which lavishly praised the pick on Tuesday, said those muddied waters were under
“He’s coming here as ambassador to the United states, not to
get involved in partisan politics,” David Harris, the American Jewish Committee
director, told JTA. “The prime minister knows it. He knows it.”
Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, noted that Dan Shapiro,
Obama’s envoy to Israel, once was closely identified with positions that upset
the Netanyahu government. In his previous position, as the top Middle East
official on the National Security Council, Shapiro took the lead in pressing
Israel to freeze settlement expansion.
Ron Dermer, the senior adviser to
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a convention for Jewish bloggers
in Jerusalem, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90) Ron Dermer, the next ambassador to
the US, speaking at a 2009 convention for Jewish bloggers in Jerusalem.
“The relationship is bigger than political nuance,”
said Foxman, who added that since Obama’s successful March visit to Israel, the
tensions that once divided the governments have passed.
but difficult to forget. Unlike Shapiro and other functionaries turned
ambassadors, Dermer made the case for his boss in an abrasive tone. In 2011, he
declined a New York Times request for an Op-Ed in a letter that was later leaked
to The Jerusalem Post.
“It would seem as if the surest way to get an
Op-Ed published in The New York Times
these days, no matter how obscure the
writer or the viewpoint, is to attack Israel,” Dermer wrote.
immigrated to Israel in 1997 after several years of involvement in Republican
congressional politics. He drew close at first to former Soviet political
prisoner Natan Sharansky, co-writing with him “The Case for Democracy,” a book
that President George W. Bush later cited as a major influence. In the book,
Sharansky treats Dermer as a full partner in shaping its ideas.
Sharansky, Dermer met Netanyahu, and they also forged an immediate closeness.
Netanyahu, the finance minister in the mid-2000s, sent Dermer to Washington as
Dermer lets little stand in his way. Oren — also US
born and beloved by the US Jewish community — wanted to keep his job, insiders
say, and the only reason he was removed is that Dermer wanted the envoy
Long before Dermer was formally named as the new ambassador, he was
taking calls from Jewish schools and synagogues in Washington eager for his
Oren and his two predecessors, Salai Meridor and Daniel
Ayalon, made outreach to the US Jewish community a hallmark of their tenure.
Oren in particular was sensitive to anger in the Jewish community over Israel’s
perceived discrimination against women and helped broker a tentative compromise
that would allow for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.
Dermer said he considered cultivating ties with the American Jewish community’s
liberal wing a waste of time. Dermer is believed to be behind the liberal lobby
J Street’s inability to secure meetings with high-level officials during its
Israel trips. Oren, by contrast, has forged low-level ties with the
Like other Jewish groups, J Street welcomed Dermer’s
Dermer also led efforts in the Prime Minister’s Office to
ban foreign funding of human rights groups in Israel, likening the groups that
accepted such funding to agents of foreign powers. Some of the groups have the
support of leading Jewish liberal benefactors from the United
Dermer’s defenders in Washington say those issues are dwarfed by
the immediate challenges facing Israeli-US interests in the Middle
“He will be an effective representative of the State of Israel
generally, and Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically, as we are in a crucial
period of US-Israel relations with the need to stop Iran from developing a
nuclear weapon,” said William Daroff, who directs the Jewish Federations of
North America’s Washington office.
Unprompted, Foxman, Harris and Daroff
all made the same point: Dermer’s closeness to Netanyahu is what will make his
time in Washington a success.
“The most important thing for any
ambassador in Washington, especially any Israeli ambassador, is that he brings
the full trust of the prime minister,” Harris said. “That’s an asset you cannot
put a price on.
“What it says to the host country is that I am sending
someone in whom I have full confidence, so when you talk to him you have a
direct conduit to me.”