Politics: Right-hand men, American-style

Ari Harow and Ron Dermer are two olim from the United States, each of whom has access to Netanyahu's ear.

netanyahu what 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu what 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The phone rang after 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night. On the line was a Likud MK with an important message for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Asked why he was calling The Jerusalem Post, the Likud legislator responded that this was now a good way to reach the prime minister, because "his closest advisers are English speakers who read your paper first." The MK was correct that Miami Beach-born Ron Dermer and Ari Harow, a native of Los Angeles, are two of the closest people to the prime minister nowadays. But they regretfully admitted this week that, due to their intense schedules, they did not have time to read a morning newspaper - not even The Jerusalem Post. Netanyahu is known for having an American mentality, after attending high school and college in the United States, working there for a short period and later returning as ambassador to the United Nations. He has always had American advisers, whether well-known political strategists or olim working behind the scenes. But never before have two people who are much more interested in NFL football than soccer been so close to Netanyahu - or to any Israeli prime minister, for that matter. As Netanyahu's bureau chief, Harow runs his office, is in charge of his schedule and decides who can see him. His own office is located in the glassed-in area around Netanyahu's, in what is known as "the aquarium." He was given the only office from which he could always see who was entering Netanyahu's door. While his role is largely administrative, he attends all of Netanyahu's meetings, other than the most classified ones, and he spends more time with the prime minister than anyone else, including the prime minister's wife Sarah. Netanyahu takes Harow's advice so seriously that when Harow pointed out to him that former prime minister Ehud Olmert's staffers were leaving their jobs right before Pessah, Netanyahu issued a directive that no one from the old administration in any ministry should lose his or her livelihood before the holiday. "When you spend as much time with him as I do, it's not to improve the scenery," Harow said in an interview at the Knesset squeezed into his packed schedule. "I offer my opinion in key meetings, and I wouldn't be in this position if he didn't value it." HAROW, 35, first moved here in 1985 when he was 12. He went on to serve in the Golani Brigade, and then returned to the US, where he completed a psychology degree at the City University of New York. After studying political science at Tel Aviv University, he lived in New York again for three years, running the American Friends of Likud organization from 2003 to 2006. In 2002, Dermer brought Harow back to help with Netanyahu's primary campaign. Having informally advised Netanyahu on Diaspora affairs for five years, Harow became his foreign affairs adviser in July 2007, and was promoted to bureau chief in February 2008. A typical day for Harow begins with waking up his children early, so he can spend time with them before bringing them to school at 7:30. He will then be with Netanyahu from shortly after 8 until their work day ends, which for the last six months has usually been at 2 a.m. Netanyahu is a night owl, who holds many important meetings past the witching hour. Since his political comeback, he has made a point of working hard and not allowing any time-wasting for himself or his closest staff. But the energetic Harow doesn't seem to mind, as long as he can play a role in moving the country forward. "On my first day in the Prime Minister's Office, I told the staff that we have to realize the gravity of this moment," Harow said. "Working for the prime minister of Israel is not routine. It can't be belittled. We should show tremendous pride in it." He said he had no personal ambition beyond helping Netanyahu lead the country, and making sure it was headed in the right direction. Responding to comparisons with his American counterpart, President Barack Obama's Hebrew-speaking chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Harow said he would never trade places. "[Emanuel's] grandfather was an IZL fighter, while mine was a doctor in LA, but now I'm on the right side of the ocean," Harow said. "I am privileged and honored to work for the prime minister of Israel in Jerusalem." DERMER ALSO made an idealistic choice to move here, rather than remain in America, where his brother and father both have served as mayor of Miami Beach. After earning degrees at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and at Oxford, he worked as a strategist for Yisrael Ba'aliya's 1996 and 1999 campaigns. He was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, while coauthoring Natan Sharansky's 2004 book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. At that time, Dermer was already close to Netanyahu. And when Netanyahu became finance minister, he appointed Dermer as economic attaché in Washington. There, Dermer focused on building wide-spread economic pressure on Iran and on ensuring Israel's long-term military aid. When Dermer returned to Israel in the summer of 2008, he intended to write a book on Israel's international communications strategy. But the election came earlier than expected, so instead of writing about it, he had to start implementing it in real time, first as a campaign adviser, and now in his new job as Netanyahu's director of communication and policy planning. Dermer said he learned a lot about how to handle Netanyahu's communications strategy from the previous holder of that title, the late David Bar-Illan - who served as Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief before going to work at the PMO - and from speaking to officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations. Just like in the US, where the president has both a communications director and spokesmen, Olmert's foreign press spokesman, Mark Regev, will continue to give most of the interviews, while Dermer will focus on formulating Netanyahu's policies and strategy. "When you formulate policies, it affects people's lives," Dermer said. "The greater the responsibility, the greater sense of humility, and the more important it is to have good judgment. I am there to serve the prime minister, and he is there to serve the country. At the end of the day, he makes the decisions, and we are a small cog in that process." Dermer's main objective right now is to work on Netanyahu's diplomatic plan, which must be ready soon if the prime minister wants to make the first trip of his term in office to Washington, in time for the AIPAC National Policy Conference in early May. "Israel needs a public diplomacy strategy to be more effective," Dermer said. "Bar-Illan summed up his policy in three words: 'Do not apologize.' We want the [Israeli-Arab] conflict seen in its proper context. If we act smartly, we will win more support, and decision-makers will have more maneuverability to make the decisions they need to make to help the country." Dermer said he was happy that after Netanyahu had no choice for several months but to spend 95 percent of his time on politics and five percent on policies, the tables have turned now, and policy is the primary focus. That puts Dermer at the heart of the biggest decisions Netanyahu will shortly be making about the country's future, a high pressure situation in which Dermer feels right at home. "In this job you are too busy to pinch yourself [in disbelief]," Dermer said. "In synagogue, you wear a suit. In the Prime Minister's Office, you have to conduct yourself in a certain way, and bear that sense of responsibility all the time."