A week after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) touched off a political and diplomatic firestorm by announcing an invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress, attention turned to Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, and his role in the controversy.
How serious you believe the U.S.-born Dermer’s role in setting off that firestorm is may depend on what you think of him and Netanyahu. But even if the ambassador’s actions balloon into Dermergate, it’s likely that with Israeli elections ahead, Dermer’s job is safe – for now – according to Israel-watchers.
The controversy led Boehner to take the unusual step of publishing a chronology showing the steps taken that led to Netanyahu’s invitation in which Boehner took the leading role. It also spurred some House Democrats to urge that Netanyahu’s appearance be postponed until after the Israeli elections and the deadline for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program has passed. Both issues have become tangled in Netanyahu’s visit.
Dermer came to Washington in 2013 as a close adviser to Netanyahu. Unlike other Israeli envoys, the ambassador to Washington represents the prime minister and not just the foreign ministry, said Yoram Peri, director of the Joseph B. and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.
Dermer’s predecessor, Michael Oren, also made it clear that he represented the prime minister, Peri said. “But he didn’t go into confrontations with others. Nor was he seen as preferring one [U.S. political] party over another. Dermer really doesn’t care if he’s seen with one party. That is a major mistake.”
Dermer is Netanyahu’s man and if the prime minister wins the March election, “Bibi will keep him.” But if criticism of Dermer continues to build, Netanyahu may decide to replace him, Peri said.
“With bad blood created around this issue, Dermer can’t be a well-functioning ambassador,” said a staffer for a Jewish organization who is knowledgeable about Israeli politics. “But it would really look bad if Netanyahu ejects him now. He won’t pay a terrible price to have a lame-duck ambassador for a few months.”
Dermer will keep his job, said Josh Block, CEO and president of The Israel Project. “I have no doubt that Ambassador Dermer regrets the way this invitation issue has played out. There are major issues at stake for us and for Israel, and in the sweep of history, this won’t even be a footnote,” he said, adding, “He is a very effective representative of the State of Israel and of his government, and as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister, I think we’ll be seeing Ambassador Dermer continue to play that important role here in the United States.”
Oren, now a candidate for the Kulanu party running against Netanyahu’s Likud, called on the prime minister 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,” the former ambassador said.
Peri put the chances of Netanyahu canceling at 60-40 against.
Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu, made the day after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, caught the White House, congressional Democrats and pro-Israel groups by surprise, and with Israeli national elections scheduled for March, was attacked by Netanyahu’s political opposition.
The Obama administration was reportedly furious at how it was bypassed in the planning. On Jan. 28, The New York Times cited an unnamed “senior administration official,” who said the view within Obama’s inner circle is that Dermer “had repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States.”
Two days later, Dermer defended his actions and his boss’ intentions to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic: “The prime minister has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully —and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention,” Dermer said.
“The consensus in the foreign policy community is that the prime minister overreached,” said a senior official in a pro-Israel organization. “But the president blew it out of proportion and is using this as an opportunity to pick a fight.”
Not everyone agrees.
“Dermer seems eager to put all his eggs in the Republican basket. That’s foolish, short-sighted, risky and irresponsible,” Alan Elsner, vice president for communication at J Street, wrote in Haaretz.
And JTA quoted a “source close to AIPAC,” the pro-Israel lobby, saying, “The bottom line is, it would have been smarter to consult.”
The invitation to Netanyahu also left congressional Democrats and Jewish Democrats fuming.
The result is that support for Israel and the effort to curb Iran’s nuclear program have become partisan issues, said Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “We think this is a bad thing.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress on March 3, when the AIPAC policy conference will be underway here. Rosenbaum said Netanyahu should have just planned to make “a fiery policy speech” about Iran at AIPAC rather than have accepted Boehner’s invitation.
Ken Goldstein, an expert on congressional politics and the pro-Israel community at the University of San Francisco, said Netanyahu and his U.S. envoy Ron Dermer put Jewish lawmakers — most of them Democrats — in a tight spot.
“I will agree with Ambassador Dermer that this is a phenomenally important issue. Given that, is this the best strategy?” Goldstein told JTA. “It puts everyone in a difficult position, and doing your job is not to put someone in a difficult position.”
House Democrats Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) are circulating a letter urging Boehner to reschedule Netanyahu’s appearance, JTA reported. “Our relationship with Israel is too important to use as a pawn in political gamesmanship,” it reads.
The backlash from the invitation has created linkage between the prime minister’s visit and proposed legislation to increase sanctions on Iran if talks with the West on its nuclear program fail, Rosenbaum said.
“For the NJDC, this has been beneficial” because the group opposes the legislation, believing Iran might leave the talks if it passes, he said. Democratic supporters of the legislation have backed away from it as a result of the invitation to Netanyahu