Netanyahu’s man in DC

Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer is the closest thing to actually having the prime minister in Washington.

Israel's ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (R),. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel's ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer (R),.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s an answer strikingly characteristic of Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer: unapologetic, unexpected, articulate and completely faithful to his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Asked in an email interview with The Jerusalem Post what have been the highlights and lowlights of his two and a half years so far in Washington, one might have expected Dermer to say that the lowest point was Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress in March 2015.
Dermer, whom some blamed for orchestrating the highly contentious speech, took a lot of heat for the move, including calls that he be removed because of what some contended would be his “obvious” inability to work effectively going forward with an incensed Obama Administration.
Dermer, being Dermer, said that was not the lowest point of his tenure, but indeed the highlight.
“In my eyes, the prime minister fulfilled a fundamental moral obligation to speak out about a potential threat to the survival of our country,” he said.
“This was a sovereign right that the Jewish people were long denied and the failure to exercise that right would have been a gross dereliction of his duty as prime minister of Israel.”
It was a different kind of ambassador Netanyahu sent to Washington in October 2013 when he dispatched Dermer, who will be speaking at the Post’s annual conference in New York on May 22, to replace Michael Oren.
Like Oren, Dermer was a political appointment, not someone who came up through the Foreign Ministry.
Unlike Oren, he was close to Netanyahu – very close – having served him as his chief adviser from 2009 to 2013.
Not in a generation had a prime minister appointed so close a personal adviser as ambassador to the country most important to Israel. Some have called him Netanyahu’s alter ego, others “Bibi’s brain.”
As such, Dermer, 45, has the complete confidence and trust of Netanyahu, as well as unfettered access to him. The Americans know that when they speak to him, their messages will be directly relayed back to Netanyahu; and – more importantly – they know when he speaks, he is reflecting – more accurately than probably anyone else on the planet – the positions of the prime minister.
You have been ambassador since October 2013. During this period, there have been highs and lows in the relationship. How would you characterize the state of US-Israel ties at this time?
The state of the relationship is very strong and I believe it will grow stronger in the coming years.
First, because the US will be facing serious security threats emanating from the Middle East for the foreseeable future and Israel is the one solid, reliable democratic ally in the region – an ally that shares American values and interests, is truly capable of defending itself, provides vital support to the US and helps the US project power in the region.
Second, the importance of Israel as a technological power will grow in the years ahead. In IT, science, medicine, water, energy, cyber, and many other areas, Israel’s value as a strategic partner of the United States will become more and more apparent.
I know people always focus on the disagreements between us, but just as friendships between people are often tested in times of disagreement, friendships between countries are often tested during times of disagreement between governments.
One of the enduring strengths of the US-Israel relationship has been its ability to weather serious disagreements between our two governments to build an even stronger relationship between the two countries. That is what has happened despite serious policy disagreements in the past, and that is what I believe will happen in the future, despite the serious policy disagreement over the Iran nuclear deal.
What has been the highlight of your tenure? What has been the lowest point?
From a national point of view, the highlight for me was definitely Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.
In my eyes, the prime minister fulfilled a fundamental moral obligation to speak out about a potential threat to the survival of our country. This was a sovereign right that the Jewish people were long denied, and the failure to exercise that right would have been a gross dereliction of his duty as prime minister of Israel.
The fact that the prime minister spoke up in the face of so much unjust criticism is not just a highlight of my tenure in Washington, but in my view one of the highlights of his premiership and one of the many reasons I am so proud to serve him.
A second highlight for me was the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony we hosted earlier this year at the embassy.
It was the first time such a ceremony was held in America recognizing Americans who were given what is perhaps our nation’s highest honor....President [Barack] Obama graciously agreed to speak at the ceremony, becoming the first sitting president to speak at our embassy. He spoke movingly about the Holocaust and paid a fitting tribute to these heroes, as well as contributed greatly to raising awareness about the Holocaust.
On a personal level, the highlight for me was probably speaking in Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I spoke about the relationship between African-Americans and Jews.
Those among your readers who were raised in the United States can surely appreciate what an honor that was.
By the way, the most fun I have had as ambassador is the trip Robert Kraft and I led that brought 19 NFL Hall of Famers to Israel last June – which generated very positive press coverage that exposed audiences that are otherwise very difficult to reach to our remarkable country.
As for the low point, there is not one single moment that stands out. As ambassador, there are obviously days when you feel that you have made a real positive difference and other days that are more frustrating for all sorts of reasons.
Nevertheless, I always remind myself that whatever problems we are dealing with today, our grandparents and their grandparents, going back 100 generations, would have given anything to trade their problems with ours. With that perspective, the lows are not really that low, and I always feel that it is a great privilege to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Is the Iran battle behind us? Did the battle cause lasting damage?
Unfortunately, the battle is far from being behind us. If Israel believed that this agreement actually blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, I would have gone from city to city throughout America asking people to support it.
However, this deal does not block Iran’s path to the bomb. It ultimately paves Iran’s path to the bomb. What the deal does is put temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that are automatically removed in 10 or 15 years.
To automatically remove the restrictions at a certain date in the future is at best – if Iran does not violate the deal – to delay Iran’s path to the bomb by a decade or so.
That delay comes with a very high price tag: legitimizing Iran’s limited nuclear enrichment program today and an industrial-size program tomorrow, and – of course – removing the sanctions.
An Iran that was facing a headwind of sanctions is now facing a tailwind of sanctions relief.
So the foremost sponsor of terrorism in the world, a regime that openly calls and actively works to destroy Israel, has now become richer and more dangerous.
Now Israel must deal with that reality – a reality in which Iran is continuing to violate its international obligations by continuing to arm Hezbollah with increasingly sophisticated weapons, continuing to try to arm Palestinian terrorist organizations, continuing to develop and test ballistic missiles, and continuing to set up terrorist cells across the world.
At the UN last year, the prime minister outlined a three-point policy that should unite both those who supported the deal and those who opposed it: (1) keep Iran’s feet to the fire and ensure it does not violate the deal; (2) confront Iran’s regional aggression; and (3) dismantle Iran’s global terrorism network.
As far as lasting damage, the fallout of the deal will prove much more lasting than the fallout over fighting that deal.
In fact, in my view, real lasting damage would have come from not opposing something that poses an existential threat to our country.
Don’t forget, despite our disagreement with the administration, strong majorities in both houses of Congress and no less important, the overwhelming majority of the American people, do see eye-to-eye with Israel on this issue.
While Israel’s opposition to the nuclear deal was not popular in certain quarters, I have no doubt that the willingness of Israel to stand up for its interests did not go unnoticed in the region and among our enemies....
The media constantly discuss the dysfunctional nature of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. How does the fact that this is repeated over and over as truth impact the relationship?
Much less than people think. It makes for great copy, but I do not think it materially affects the reality of the relationship all that much.
I have been present at all the meetings between the president and prime minister, and I would certainly not call their relationship dysfunctional.
A sign of dysfunctionality to me would be if they were unable to communicate their views to one another.
That is not the case. In fact, I would bet that they have had more meetings and phone calls than perhaps any pair of presidents and prime ministers in the history of the US-Israel relationship.
A sign of dysfunctionality would also be if their disagreements prevented them from working on areas of agreement.
That is also not true. There have been many times when they have confided in one another on vital matters and worked closely together.
It is true that they have had serious disagreements on fundamental issues.
But given the stakes involved in those disagreements, I would say their relationship has functioned well despite those disagreements.
They are both very cerebral people who make their case to one another and listen respectfully to the arguments of the other, even when they don’t agree.
What has been your biggest challenge as ambassador?
To fight a nuclear deal made between our greatest enemy and our greatest friend, while reminding people that after this deal Iran remains our greatest enemy and America remains our greatest friend.
What is the one thing that surprised you the most as ambassador?
I always knew there was a great deal of ignorance when it came to Israel – about our history, both ancient and modern, about the small size of the country, about the security challenges we face, and many other things.
The ignorance of even well-educated diplomats about our conflict with the Palestinians actually surprised me. You know, new ambassadors to Washington from around the world generally ask for courtesy meetings with a handful of their fellow Ambassadors.
I have never turned down those requests, because they are not only good for our diplomatic relations with those countries, but they are also a great opportunity to learn about those countries.
A meeting with an ambassador is probably worth about five years of reading the Economist – and you save yourself from having to read all of its anti-Israel vitriol to boot.
Last year, the ambassador of Burundi to the US asked to meet with me. We met on one of those rare days when I was actually tired of listening to myself speak. Believe it or not, that occasionally happens.
So rather than spend most of our time talking about Iran or the situation in Syria or the conflict with the Palestinians, most of our meeting was spent with him answering all sorts of questions I had about Burundi – about which I must admit, I was largely ignorant.
When I asked him whether his country had a security problem, he said not since 2004. I asked what happened then. He said that they had achieved a cease-fire after years of violence that spilled over from Rwanda in the 1990s.
I asked him how many Burundians had been killed in the violence. He said 300,000. I had known about the horrific carnage in Rwanda, but I had no idea that so many people in Burundi had been killed.
Then I asked him how many people he thought had been killed in the nearly 100-year history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He guessed about two million.
When I told him he was only off by two zeroes – and that the real number was closer to 20,000 – he was stunned.
I told him that the Arab-Israeli conflict had claimed about 125,000 lives over the last century but that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict had claimed a little more than 20,000 lives on both sides.
I figured perhaps it was only natural that he knew as little about Israel as I did about Burundi. So I started asking the same question to other ambassadors in town, many of whom were supposedly much more informed about the conflict, including people who had been the heads of the Middle East bureaus in their foreign ministries.
Their educated guesses were all way off by at least a factor of 10. One European ambassador simply refused to believe me and told me that the number must be well over a million.
There was no way, he said, that the world would pay so much attention to a conflict that had claimed roughly 200 lives a year on both sides over the last century.
It was simply inconceivable, he repeated over and over again. I told him to Google it for himself and watch The Princess Bride before our next meeting.
Much has been written about the growing alienation of American Jewry from Israel because of the government’s policies. Do you sense that?
If there is alienation from Israel, I do not see it as being fundamentally connected to the policies of this particular government – or the policies of any Israeli government for that matter.
That is not to say there is not opposition to Israel’s current policies among some American Jews. There is. But to use a familiar word, the fiercest critics of Israel make a “disproportionate” share of the noise.
I think the “problem” that you have among some American Jews when it comes to Israel is that if you are not over the age of 75, you have no recollection of a world without Israel. So it is harder for younger people to appreciate how fundamentally Israel has transformed the life of the Jewish people.
If you are not over the age of 55, you do not remember a vulnerable Israel.
All you know is a strong Israel that has been unjustly depicted for decades as a Goliath to the Palestinians’ David. So you may not appreciate that while Israel is indeed strong, it can go from great strength to great vulnerability very quickly if we make foolish mistakes.
That said, there is broad, strong and deep support for Israel among the American Jewish community. Whenever American Jews, young and old alike, perceive that Israel is in danger, they rally to Israel’s side. You saw that in the summer of 2014, and I am confident you would see it any time Israel was perceived to be in danger.
If there is alienation of some Jews from Israel, it is generally a function of the alienation of these Jews from their Jewish identity. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that Jews with a weaker Jewish identity will tend to have a weaker identification with the Jewish state.
In the late 1960s, my father was the mayor of Miami Beach, and had the opportunity to meet with David Ben-Gurion on a trip to Israel. My father asked him what is the one thing he would recommend to Jewish parents. Ben-Gurion pointed at my six-year-old brother and said, “teach him Jewish history.”
At that time, Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s ambassador to the US. My father had the opportunity to host him in our home and he asked him what is the most important thing American Jews can do for Israel. Rabin answer: “Give their children a Jewish education.”
What Ben-Gurion and Rabin said then is even truer for a generation of Jews who have not had the indelible experiences of the Holocaust and the rebirth of the Jewish state.
Jewish education and knowledge of Jewish history is perhaps more important than ever. It will strengthen Jewish identity.
The stronger one’s Jewish identity, the stronger the connection to Israel will be.
The problem, frankly, is the cost of Jewish education. Many people simply can’t afford it – especially if they have large families.
The best thing that leaders in Jewish communities across America could do for Israel is to figure out how to lower the cost of Jewish education dramatically to make it affordable for anyone who wants it and to promote greater awareness of Jewish history for young people and adults. They should also continue to support terrific programs like Birthright and Masa that strengthen Jewish identity.
That will ensure both a vibrant Jewish community in America and a community strongly connected to Israel.
American demographics are changing dramatically. What can Israel do to gain support among those demographics not known to have an emotional pull to the country. The Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans?
What Israel can do is to engage with those communities as much as possible, particularly leaders. We should not underestimate the impact direct contact can have.
That means meeting with those leaders, and it means bringing those leaders to see Israel for themselves – something many pro-Israel organizations are doing rather well.
My own experience with African- American leaders has convinced me how important this outreach is.
That outreach actually came about as a result of the prime minister’s speech to Congress. One member of the Congressional Black Caucus had said to me that they saw the speech as an affront to the first African-American president.
Obviously, that was not the intention of the prime minister and I wanted to make that clear.
So I decided to reach out to members of the Congressional Black Caucus – not to change their votes on the Iran deal but to make clear that as someone born and raised in the US, the last thing I wanted was a legitimate policy disagreement between the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States to lead to a rupture in relations between the African-American and Jewish communities.
I met with about 40 of the 45 members of the CBC. Some had actually never had an Israeli ambassador come to their office – even some members who had been in Congress for decades.
I found that engagement very constructive in reducing a lot of the misunderstandings that could have otherwise made the situation significantly worse.
I also heard from nearly every single member that while they had policy disagreements with Israel, they remain committed to strengthening the relationship between America and Israel.
We should not assume people understand Israel’s concerns. We have to communicate those concerns directly, particularly when much of the media present a distorted picture of the situation.
And the best thing is to bring people to Israel to see the situation for themselves.
Another thing Israel must do to engage with more progressive constituencies is to remind people of the progressive nature of our society – about how the rights of women, gays and minorities are protected and how we have upheld our progressive values despite being the most endangered democracy on earth.
Democracies are tested under fire.
That is something that is better understood after attacks like those in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels. Given that Israel has been under fire for 68 years, Israel’s democracy, while imperfect, is nothing less than extraordinary.
Does Israel pay too much attention to BDS? How much of a threat is it?
I don’t think that if Israel ignores the BDS movement, it will simply go away.
I think we have to fight it aggressively and smartly.
That said, I do not think BDS is an economic problem for Israel. Its economic effects are negligible because Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Google and dozens of other hi-tech companies are not in Israel because they are Zionists. They are in Israel because they want access to perhaps the most innovative workforce on the planet.
A much greater threat to Israel’s economic future than BDS is a potential brain drain that would be the result of our best and brightest not being able to enjoy the quality of life in Israel that they can have elsewhere.
This is why the prime minister’s long-standing effort to liberalize Israel’s economy, cut taxes, cut regulation and lower prices through increased competition is so important. Hopefully, reforms in the housing market will make it more affordable to live in Israel.
While it’s not an economic problem for Israel, BDS is a moral problem. It is an attempt to demonize Israel, to cast it as a pariah state that has no legitimacy and should be destroyed.
As a moral attack, BDS must be fought in moral terms – by exposing those who support BDS as the anti-Semites they are.
That label is not necessarily true of all the Jewish and Palestinian supporters of BDS. The fact that Jews and Palestinians decide to boycott Israel and not all the other countries of the world is not in and of itself evidence of anti-Semitism.
After all, it is natural to focus on one’s own problems before solving the world’s problems. These groups may just suffer from run-of-the-mill moral idiocy and hatred.
But the same cannot be said of national or international organizations that have decided to single Israel out for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
When I hear that church groups or academic associations have decided to boycott or divest from Israel, my first question is whether Israel is the 51st, 71st or 121st country on their list of boycotted nations.
If Israel is one of many countries they are boycotting, then at least I know these groups may have some principle by which they are judging Israel. I would not call them anti-Semites. I would say they are ignorant or misinformed, and that we need to educate them about the facts.
But if these groups single out Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, and are silent on all the egregious human rights violations that exist throughout the world – North Korea, Syria, Iran and dozens of other countries that I will not mention because I am a diplomat – then they are anti-Semites.
The best that may be said of them is that they are anti-Semitic in effect rather than intent – to borrow an astute observation from the former president of Harvard, Larry Summers.
What makes the offense all the more egregious is the sheer absurdity of these groups boycotting Israel.
We live at a time when ancient Christian communities in the Middle East are being decimated, when Christians are being decapitated en masse, when Christians are literally fleeing for their lives in the region – and a group of Christians actually call to divest from Israel, the one country in the region where Christians are free and safe, with a Christian population five times larger than it was in 1948? We live at a time when academics in dozens of countries are shot or imprisoned for their beliefs and an academic group calls to boycott Israeli academics who enjoy the privilege of living in a country where they are free to say what they want, research what they want, and publish what they want? To fight BDS effectively, Israel should not try to explain itself to these organizations.
These organizations must be asked to explain themselves – to explain why they are not anti-Semities.
Ask them a simple question: What is the principle by which you singled out Israel, alone among the nations, for boycott or divestment? They cannot answer that question because there is no such principle – other than anti-Semitism.
Do you believe Israel will finalize an MOU with the Obama administration? And what do you say to those who argue that Israel is a rich enough country to forgo US assistance?
I hope that we will be able to conclude the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] soon, and I think there is great value in finalizing it with the Obama administration.
I think it’s important for your readers to have a little background on the assistance we get from the United States because there is a lot of confusion on this subject.
In our first two decades of statehood, Israel received very little economic assistance and even less military assistance from the United States.
Israel began receiving significant military and economic assistance from the United States in the wake of the Yom Kippur War and especially after the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, in which Israel gave back the strategically valuable and oil producing Sinai Peninsula, from which Israel had been repeatedly attacked.
This military and economic aid together was roughly $3 billion a year and was designed to strengthen Israel economically and militarily in the wake of the historic peace agreement.
But there is a big difference between the two kinds of aid. Economic aid is essentially a direct cash payment, whereas military aid is primarily spent in America to purchase US military platforms and weapons, such as fighter planes and ammunition.
In Israel’s case, about three quarters of military assistance is spent in the US to buy US military systems.
After about 15 years of receiving over $1b. a year in economic assistance, then-prime minister Netanyahu told a joint session of Congress in 1996 that while he deeply appreciated US economic support, Israel’s economy was strong enough to begin to stand on its own two feet.
In the wake of that speech, the first Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Clinton administration.
It phased out economic aid over 10 years. In 2007, Israel stopped receiving economic aid from the US.
Military assistance under that original MOU grew gradually to $2.4b. per year. In 2007, a second MOU was signed with the Bush administration that gradually increased military assistance to $3.1b. per year, where it has remained for the last few years. That second MOU will expire in two years.
In addition to this military assistance, the United States has also generously helped Israel build a three-tiered missile defense system – Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow 2 and 3.
These systems mostly use Israeli technology and R&D, but a larger and larger share of the production occurs in the United States.
The US financial contribution to developing these systems varies from year to year but has averaged about $600 million over the last three years.
So total military assistance has averaged about $3.7b. over the last three years.
I was involved with forging Israel’s second MOU when I was economic attaché in Washington in 2007. That MOU took about eight months to complete.
We have been dealing with this third MOU in earnest for about the last six months, and I hope we can complete it soon.
As to your question as to why Israel still needs military assistance, it is true that Israel has a relatively high GDP per capita – about $37,000. The problem is that Israel doesn’t have enough “capita.”
That is, we have a very small population – 8.5 million people – and a total GDP of approximately $300 billion....
Because of Israel’s enormous defense needs and very small population, Israel has always been forced to dedicate a much larger percentage of its GDP to defense than other countries. That is especially true when you compare Israel to other democracies.
For example, European countries spend about 1% of their GDP on defense and almost never more than 2%.
The United States traditionally spends about 4% of its GDP on defense. In recent years, Israel has spent roughly 6% of our GDP without factoring any US assistance.… While Israel is deeply appreciative that the US has helped Israel shoulder this enormous defense burden for the past four decades, Israel also believes that the generous assistance the US provides Israel is also a great investment in US security.
Israel shares American interests and values and provides the US with vital intelligence and critical security cooperation that saves American lives and helps protect US interests in the Middle East.
A strong Israel not only protects its own population, but also strengthens our peace partners, Jordan and Egypt, and serves as a bulwark for stability in a region that is experiencing unprecedented volatility and violence.
The prime minister recently pointed out that in the last 10 to 15 years, the US has spent over $1.5 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the equivalent of about 500 years of US assistance to Israel. And Israel has never asked American soldiers to risk their lives to defend us – only to provide us with the tools we need to better defend ourselves.
That is probably why former Secretary of State Alexander Haig once called Israel the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security, and why Vice President Biden recently said that if there were not an Israel, America would have to invent it.
If there is a country in the world from which American is getting the most bang for its buck, it is Israel – a strong, reliable democratic ally in the most dangerous region on earth.
Ron Dermer is speaking at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York on May 22. Click here to register.