An Associated Press tweet Tuesday morning read, “Israel appoints a former GOP activist as its ambassador to Washington.” That sentence is at once technically accurate; not a little misleading; and, on a deeper level, inadvertently revealing of how many in the United States view the news.
Technically accurate: Ron Dermer, 42, born in the U.S.A., worked for his old professor Frank Luntz nearly 20 years ago helping facilitate the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Despite being both a son and a brother to former Democratic mayors of Miami Beach, his instincts are conservative, and come in a distinctly American rather than Israeli accent. “When I think about Israel, I always ask myself, I call it the WWAD question: ‘What would America do?’” he told Tablet’s Allison Hoffman two years ago. “Ron Dermer’s many American friends say that if he’d stayed in America, where he was born, he’d probably be political director of the Republican National Committee or managing a GOP presidential campaign,” reported Ben Smith in 2010.
Not a little misleading: Almost immediately after the ’94 victory, Dermer ensconced himself in Israeli politics, and he has barely looked back. His first Israeli mentor was the famed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky; working for him gave him an expertise in Russian expat politics (an increasingly important speciality in Israel), which in turn led him to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election campaign in 1999. Bibi lost, but found a protégé. Dermer has served a succession of jobs for Netanyahu, culminating in his current, massive role once Netanyahu again became prime minister. Today, Dermer serves as speechwriter, policy maven, political guru, and, as Hoffman’s profile was titled, “Bibi’s Brain.” His job, Smith said, “is much larger than political adviser,” and “encompasses virtually everything the prime minister touches.” One observer told Hoffman, “If you look at Ron, you see Bibi.” So calling Dermer just a “former GOP activist”—even in a tweet—is sort of like identifying Babe Ruth as a “former Boston Red Sox pitcher.”
Inadvertently revealing: Throughout his second, and current, stint as prime minister—which has coincided almost exactly with Barack Obama’s term as president—Netanyahu has been accused of antagonizing the Democratic administration and frequently going around it to a sympathetic Congress. Though the scion of a prominent Israeli political family, Netanyahu grew up outside Philadelphia and professes a menu of hawkish, free-market, and secular views that place him at least as much at home in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party as in his own Likud Party, which is steadily drifting to his right; and in his prominent speeches before the AIPAC Conference and even, in 2011, before Congress, he was seen to clash with the White House with an unprecedented openness and savvy. And Dermer has been seen to be no small part of all of this.
Most dramatically, last year, Netanyahu was credibly accused of putting his thumb on the scale in favor of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Take Romney’s July 2012 visit to Israel. It is not uncommon for presidential candidates to travel to Israel; Obama himself did so in 2008. But Romney had made Israel—on which he pledged to “do the opposite” of Obama—an unusually major campaign theme, and so the visit was seen as atypically political, complete with a dramatic speech at a fundraiser (as opposed to the “state visit”-type of trip Obama took in 2008). The news of Romney’s trip was first leaked by—you guessed it—Dermer, who (as Hoffman reported at the time) masterminded it with his old friend Dan Senor, a Romney campaign adviser.
Jeff Goldberg is reporting that “Dermer was endorsed by Kerry and the State Department. White House acquiesced. But not happily.” Clearly Dermer is not the pick Bibi makes if he wants to maximize amiability with the administration. But, as Smith reported in 2010, despite gaping ideological and even personal differences between Netanyahu and Obama, “the staff relationships have gone swimmingly, something for which Dermer is often credited.” And besides: The ambassador to the U.S.’s job is as much a role of public diplomacy—being the constant face of the Israeli government in America and to Americans—as it is a role of actual, state-to-state diplomacy, which, given the prominence of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, is frequently left to military commanders, cabinet ministers, and heads of government.
But that’s just it—that is why Dermer can’t possibly be the best choice for public diplomat. Compare him to Michael Oren, the current ambassador. Oren is an esteemed scholar (a professor at Yale) and writer (of books and articles, primarily for The New Republic) who served in the military as a spokesperson to foreign correspondents. In other words, Oren is well-respected across the American media landscape and has a specialty in dealing with American press; and duly some of his finest moments as ambassador have come when he was communicating Israel’s positions through the press, such as in several fine Wall Street Journal op-eds. I strongly suspect he has been just as effective as a behind-the-scenes flack for the government he serves.
Dermer, by contrast, is reputed to have ties to conservative media, but that is a far cry from the widespread prestige Oren had earned; and Dermer has gone out of his way to antagonize at least one very important media outlet. Specifically, he is famous for telling off the New York Times. “So with all due respect to your prestigious paper, you will forgive us for declining your offer,” Dermer snarked a couple years ago, turning down a request for Netanyahu to contribute a column. “We wouldn't want to be seen as ‘Bibiwashing’ the op-ed page of the New York Times.” His beefs with the Grey Lady’s op-ed page may have been legitimate, but Dermer shouldn’t need the adage about catching more flies with honey translated into Hebrew. Being undiplomatic can be an admirable trait—unless you’ve just been appointed your country’s lead diplomat to its most important ally.