Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer on Sunday delivered a response to President Barack Obama, who had pledged to a Washington synagogue audience that he would not accept “a bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear arms program.
“When the president says in a synagogue that this is a good deal for the United States and Israel, I believe he is completely sincere,” Dermer told his own synagogue audience, this one at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
But if the president gets his way and Iran doesn’t abide by the still-to-be-worked-out agreement, which calls for Iran to halt the development of its nuclear program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions, Iran will have both nuclear weapons and a strong economy, Dermer said.
Bleaker still is if Iran does abide by the agreement, which is to be phased out in 10-15 years, he said. “Israel’s main concern is that Iran will get the bomb by biding its time and be a much more dangerous country 10 years from now.”
The American-born envoy, who came to his post in Washington two years ago, appeared at the Reform congregation at the end of its annual meeting. He’s scheduled to speak Sunday at the annual meeting of the synagogue that hosted Obama, Adas Israel Congregation. What’s behind this spate of appearance by an envoy who is known more for courting Republican politicians than the American Jewish community?
In a word: Iran.
“The Iran agreement may or may not happen,” said Robert Wexler, president of the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a former member of Congress. “There are questions on implementation and enforcement” which are so far unanswered. The Iran agreement “is an essential part” of Dermer’s work in Washington, Wexler said.
That includes the Jewish community.
“His outreach to the American Jewish community will be toward unifying the community,” Wexler said. “It’s critical that this be done before the 2016 U.S. elections begin in earnest.” By then, everything will be handled as a partisan issue, he said.
Of the 18 Israelis who have served as ambassador to the United States, Dermer is widely seen as the most partisan. Born in Florida, Dermer, in the 1990s, went to Washington where he worked with GOP pollster Frank Luntz and then-Rep. Newt Gingrich to develop the Contract with America.
“Calling Dermer just a ‘former GOP activist’… is sort of like identifying Babe Ruth as a ‘former Boston Red Sox pitcher,’ Marc Tracy wrote in The New Republic in 2013.
“When Dermer showed up in Washington [as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador], people were skeptical,” said one Jewish community organization staffer.
That skepticism still lingers in many circles. “He’s basically been an envoy to the Republican party and not to the United States or the broader Jewish community,” said an official at an American Jewish organization who asked not to be identified.
Many reached the same conclusion during the run up to Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress, when the prime minister made his case against the developing Iran agreement. Dermer was credited – or blamed – with setting up the appearance with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and bypassing the White House, Democrats and American Jews.
So tangled had other issues become in the controversy, that some House Democrats urged that Netanyahu’s appearance be postponed until after the Israeli elections in March and the deadline for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program had passed.
Dermer’s predecessor Michael Oren, then running for a Knesset seat, called on Netanyahu to cancel his address to Congress. Netanyahu “created the impression that this is a cynical political move, and it could hurt our efforts to act against Iran,” said the former ambassador, whose
Kulanu party is now part of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
At Washington Hebrew Congregation, Dermer defended his actions and Netanyahu’s controversial appearance. “Whether you agree or not, Israel’s assessment [about Iran] is sincere. The prime minister has a moral obligation to speak out. We’re not at the negotiating table, so once the prime minister spoke, I felt, at least we spoke.”
After Netanyahu’s appearance came Israel’s election on March 17, coupled with Netanyahu’s sudden opposition to a two-state solution and warning that Arab-Israelis were flocking to the polls. Netanyahu won the vote, but weeks of coalition-building negotiations followed.
“During the election Dermer had to keep his head down,” said the staffer.
If there was any question about whether Dermer would hold his job after the heat generated by his boss’ speech to Congress, Netanyahu’s electoral triumph has silenced it. It is now clear, Israel watchers say, that the adviser who has been called “Bibi’s brain” for his close
relationship with the prime minister is staying in Washington.
Is Dermer on a damage-control mission with the Jewish community? Not necessarily. And not unless he changes his modus operandi.
“Oren’s M.O. was very inclusive and embraced the whole community,” said the Jewish community official. “In contrast, Ambassador Dermer has been very narrow.”
Complaints about Dermer include, but are not limited to, his lack of appearances at Washington-area congregations. Obama’s May 22 speech at Adas Israel was attended by six former ambassadors, but not Dermer. The Israeli Embassy spokesman explained that Dermer was “out of the country on a previously scheduled trip and, unfortunately, could not return in time to attend the president’s speech.”
At Washington Hebrew Congregation, Dermer insisted that he is not snubbing synagogues. He told the audience that he is the first Orthodox ambassador to Washington. Because he does not drive on Shabbat, he is prevented from attending services at a different synagogue each week and making the round of High Holiday services stops as his predecessors did.
“I can’t go from synagogue to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said.
So, just short of two years since he was named ambassador, Dermer seems to be making the annual meeting appearance his own custom.
Whether it will continue after the end of Israel’s diplomatic drive against the Iran agreement is an open question.
But if his Washington Hebrew Congregation speech is any indication, Adas Israel congregants can expect to hear Sunday exactly what Netanyahu wants them to hear.
Dermer may be Bibi’s brain, but he’s also Netanyahu’s voice.