Monday, January 9, 2017
Netanahu's Man In Washington Has A Great Relationship With Trump
Trump restores power of Israeli ambassador
After years in the Obama wilderness, Ron Dermer is reveling in the embrace of the president-elect.
In November 2014, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, was a featured guest at a dinner for graduates of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school of business. The other honoree that night: Donald J. Trump.
For Dermer, it was an extra-special occasion. As the Israeli envoy explained to the crowd at a Washington hotel, according to the text of his prepared remarks, the mogul had been an inspiration for the diplomat.
When Trump’s "The Art of the Deal" was published in 1987, a teenage Dermer read the cutthroat manifesto and resolved to become an entrepreneur like Trump. The book even convinced him to attend Trump’s alma mater of Wharton.
“Mr. Trump,” Dermer said, “the truth is, I wanted to be your apprentice.”
Dermer quickly indicated that his quip about Trump’s hit reality show of the same name was lighthearted: “But seriously …,” he continued. An Israeli official confirmed the accuracy of the speech text.
But the basic story is true. And it illustrates a remarkable reversal of fortune for Dermer. Since his September 2013 arrival in Washington, Dermer has been distrusted and even personally disliked by Obama administration officials. “Acerbic,” one senior administration official called him, describing his tenure as “an abject failure.” “Openly partisan,” growled another. During one particularly tense stretch two years ago, Obama aides half-seriously mused about revoking Dermer’s diplomatic credentials and sending him home.
Now, Dermer is poised to become a VIP in Trump’s West Wing — giving his boss and confidant, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, powerful access to the new White House regime. Dermer has already met with Trump, coordinated with his team and given the incoming president valuable political cover: He has defended Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, against charges of anti-Semitism. He has parried criticism of Trump’s controversial choice for ambassador to Israel, and applauded his vow to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. And during the late December United Nations debate over Israeli settlements, Dermer advised Trump’s team and tweeted that Israel “deeply appreciate[d]” Trump’s opposition to a U.N. resolution critical of Israel that President Barack Obama allowed to pass.
That cozy relationship reflects more than Dermer's longtime admiration for Trump — it also illustrates what Dermer has predicted will be a policy of "no daylight" between the U.S. and Israel under Trump. Gone will be Obama’s pressure on Israel to halt its settlement-building in Palestinian areas. Gone will be talk of a diplomatic thaw between Washington and Tehran. Trump has even threatened to tear up America's commitment to the July 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, which Netanyahu strongly opposed.
After three years of sometimes-messy public disputes with Obama officials about U.S. policy toward Israel, Iran and the wider Middle East, Dermer can now practice the art of the deal with the man who taught it to him.
“It is in the best interests of the U.S. to have a close working relationship with Israel, which we will undoubtedly have with President Trump and Ambassador Dermer,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, in a statement. “Ambassador Dermer is a smart, thoughtful, passionate diplomat whose advice and counsel will be respected by the new Administration.”
Dermer, who declined to comment, remained quietly neutral during the campaign. But he communicated with Trump’s team through the candidate’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew sympathetic to Netanyahu’s conservative Likud government — which has infuriated Obama by undermining his nuclear deal and continuing its settlement-building.
Dermer also has a previous relationship with Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, whom Israeli officials consider among America’s most “pro-Israel” politicians. In 2014, Dermer traveled to Indianapolis to support legislation, backed by Pence, banning state dealings with entities that boycott Israel or its settlements. During the trip, Pence joined Dermer for an Indiana Pacers-Miami Heat NBA game. (As the loser of a bet with his host, Dermer wore a Pacers yarmulke the next day.)
Since the election, Dermer has proved a political shield for Trump. When Trump tapped Bannon to be his senior White House counselor in mid-November, for instance, some Jewish activists opposed the appointment — citing instances of what they called anti-Semitism in Breitbart News, the media organization Bannon chaired until joining Trump’s team in August.
As the charges swelled to politically dangerous levels, Dermer paid a symbolically crucial Nov. 17 visit to Trump Tower, where, after meeting with the president-elect, he told reporters that Trump was a “true friend of Israel.”
Dermer also added, unprompted, that Israel’s government looked forward to working “with all of the members of the Trump administration, including Steve Bannon.”
Dermer has since boosted Trump in other ways: He has pronounced Trump’s choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, “an excellent choice” amid criticism over Friedman’s hard-line views and lack of diplomatic experience.
At a Hannukah reception at the Israeli embassy in Washington last month, Dermer endorsed Friedman’s call for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — calling the controversial diplomatic position (also endorsed by past presidential candidates who later backpedaled in the face of Arab opposition) “a great step forward to peace.”
The change in power can’t come soon enough for the 45-year-old Dermer, who was born and raised in Miami Beach, where his father was a conservative Democratic mayor. After college, Dermer worked for the Soviet dissident-turned-politician Natan Sharansky in Israel, where he met Netanyahu. After serving as an adviser to Netanyahu there, Dermer moved to Washington, where he officially assumed the job of ambassador in October 2013.
The Obama White House was wary of Dermer from the start, mindful that Netanyahu had been a thinly veiled supporter of Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign, and even considered denying him diplomatic credentials. But Obama officials decided that Dermer’s close bond with Netanyahu — he has been dubbed “Bibi’s brain” — made him a valuable intermediary with the prime minister.
Tensions between Obama and Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear negotiations further strained the relationship, which devolved into outright acrimony in early 2015. That’s when Dermer, working in secret with then-House Speaker John Boehner, arranged for Netanyahu to deliver a speech to Congress criticizing the Iran nuclear talks. Obama officials called Dermer’s failure to notify the White House about the planned speech an outrageous violation of protocol.
Furious Obama officials suggested to reporters that Dermer’s diplomatic credentials might be at risk. And White House logs show that Dermer became a relatively infrequent visitor to the West Wing. Dermer’s last recorded visit to the White House as of September, the most recent date for which data is publicly available, was a meeting last Jan. 12 with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.
An Israeli official disputed the idea that Dermer ever felt unwelcome at the White House.
“The ambassador didn't feel that on a personal level,” the official said. “And when he reached out to the White House with something, he would always get a call back and they dealt with things professionally. He never felt like persona non grata.”
Now Dermer is parting ways with Obama’s team in a blaze of acrimony. In a flurry of media interviews last month, he blasted as “outrageous” and “shameful” Obama’s decision not to veto last month’s U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building, and accused Obama of secretly orchestrating the vote, which the White House has denied.
Prior to the U.N. vote, Dermer had contacted Trump advisers, asking that Trump try and stall such a resolution, which Egypt had initially proposed. In an unusual intervention in world diplomacy for a president-elect, Trump called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and asked that he pull the resolution. Trump also issued a public statement calling Obama to veto any such move, which Dermer followed with a public thank-you on Twitter.
“Israel deeply appreciates the clear and unequivocal call of President-elect @realDonaldTrump to veto anti-Israel resolution at the UN,” Dermer tweeted.
Meanwhile, Dermer is lashing out at his old foes in Obama’s West Wing. When asked recently by one interviewer about Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, Dermer pronounced the trusted Obama aide, who has a background in creative writing, “an expert in fiction.”
Obama officials respond with withering assessments of Dermer’s tenure. “The job of any ambassador is to advance his or her country’s agenda with the host government, and if you take that as a core task, then by any measure Ron Dermer failed,” said one official. “His style and his tactics neither served the Israeli government or the Israeli people.”
“Ron has been widely recognized as perhaps the most openly partisan ambassador from Israel in recent times,” added another official, who warned that partisanship in the Washington debate over Israel poses a threat to the country’s security.
But Dermer’s admirers from Trump Tower to downtown Washington see things very differently.
“He likely is to become much more influential,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “now that he will be interacting with a more friendly White House, which doesn't spend its waking moments wondering how to undermine him and his government.”
Obama officials would dispute that language. But there’s little doubt that Dermer’s job is about to get easier.
“I think that you’re going to have a policy of no daylight between the new administration and [Israel],” Dermer said in a Dec. 28 interview on MSNBC, “which will be very different from the policy that you’ve had over the last eight years.”