Washington — Ambassador Ron Dermer has just taken the biggest risk of his short diplomatic career.
As Israel’s envoy to Washington, Dermer would ordinarily be the man behind the scenes promoting his state’s most important foreign relationship. But the Israeli diplomat is now at center stage — both praised and reviled as the key player who, with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, planned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise visit to address Congress shortly before national elections in Israel, circumventing a miffed President Obama.
The administration’s outrage at Dermer’s actions was underlined when an unnamed “senior administration official” allowed himself (or herself) to be cited–though not directly quoted–accusing Dermer of having, in the Times’ paraphrase, “repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States.”
For his part, Dermer told the Times, “I have no regrets whatsoever that I have acted in a way to advance my country’s interests.”
Such exchanges between an administration and a foreign envoy, in which the diplomat himself is the issue, are rare, if not unprecedented in Washington diplomacy. But then Dermer is no ordinary diplomat.
A political appointee chosen personally by Netanyahu, Dermer, who immigrated to Israel from America in his mid 20s, has a long history of close ties to the Republican Party. Soon after his arrival, in fact, he tried to pre-empt suspicions that this would affect his mission of representing the state to leaders and lawmakers from both parties.
“There were people who thought I was going to play politics, that I was going to rally Congress, Republicans,” he told The New York Times last year. “But I was confident that after I got here, after I worked for a few months, they would understand that I was here to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
So far it hasn’t worked out that way.
To the Republicans’ delight, Netanyahu is widely expected to disagree with the Obama administration’s approach to diplomatic negotiations with Iran. In particular, the prime minister disagrees with an interim agreement that calls for Iran to substantially slow down its development of nuclear capabilities in exchange for some benefits while talks take place on a permanent pact to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.
Soon after Boehner announced Netanyahu’s visit, which will take place in March, just two weeks before he faces a national election in Israel, administration officials singled out Dermer for his role. The ambassador, administration officials told reporters, sat for two hours with Secretary of State John Kerry the day before the visit was announced, but neglected to mention a word about it to America’s top diplomat.
The administration was informed just hours before the announcement. And congressional Democratic leaders said they had not been consulted, strongly rebutting Boehner’s claim that the invitation was a bipartisan one.
But Dermer did not come to Washington to play nice with the Obama administration.
A Florida native who has became one of Netanyahu’s top confidants, Dermer was known earlier as the aide who engineered Mitt Romney’s visit to Israel and his photo op with Netanyahu as Romney was running on the GOP ticket against Obama in 2012. More recently, Dermer raised eyebrows when he appeared as a high-profile speaker at a gathering of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, convened by Sheldon Adelson, the American Jewish casino billionaire who was the party’s single largest donor in the 2012 race against Obama.