New Israeli ambassador to U.S. a brash Netanyahu loyalist

In the first five minutes of his address to an AIPAC conference, Ron Dermer laced his speech five times with the phrase “I was with him when” — the “him” referring to Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I can shed a little insight into the mind of the Israeli prime minister,” Dermer told the crowd in 2009, “because on that I’m something of an expert.”

This week, the Israeli prime minister named Dermer to the country’s most important diplomatic post, the ambassadorship to Washington.

Ron Dermer speaks at a 2009 convention in Jerusalem. photo/jta-flash90-miriam alster

Dermer has a steadfast closeness to Netanyahu and utterly buys into the prime minister’s most cherished notion about himself — that he has been right when others have been wrong.

“He’s a man of basic core convictions who has time after time been willing to stand against the current when it was not popular,” Dermer told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Born to a family of conservative Democrats in Miami — both his father and brother are former Miami Beach mayors — Dermer, 41, served as Netanyahu’s top adviser from his assumption of office in March 2009 until his new term began in March of this year.

But Dermer is known for more than just loyalty to his boss. His reputation is as a brash political player dismissive of those with whom he disagrees.

He is rumored to be responsible for the news stories about President Barack Obama’s supposed snub of Netanyahu during his 2010 White House visit. And Obama administration officials believe he was behind Netanyahu’s perceived tilt toward Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election.

“To me, it’s not an ideal choice, as he’s seen as extremely political and as someone who has repeatedly gone to the press with negative stories,” said a former Obama administration official.

Dermer’s reputation raised eyebrows when his name first surfaced earlier this year as a possible replacement for Michael Oren, the historian turned diplomat who will wind down his tenure in Washington this fall. But leaders of mainstream Jewish groups, which lavishly praised the pick when it was announced on July 9, said those muddied waters were under the bridge.

“He’s coming here as ambassador to the United States, not to get involved in partisan politics,” said David Harris, the American Jewish Committee director. “The prime minister knows it. He knows it.”

Still, Dermer is known for making the case for his boss in an abrasive tone. In 2011, he declined a New York Times request for an op-ed in a letter that was later leaked to the Jerusalem Post. “It would seem as if the surest way to get an op-ed published in the New York Times these days, no matter how obscure the writer or the viewpoint, is to attack Israel,” Dermer wrote.

Dermer immigrated to Israel in 1997 after several years of involvement in Republican congressional politics. He drew close at first to former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky, co-writing with him “The Case for Democracy.”

Through Sharansky, Dermer met Netanyahu, and they forged an immediate closeness. Netanyahu, the finance minister in the mid-2000s, sent Dermer to Washington as economic consul.

Dermer lets little stand in his way. Oren — beloved by the American Jewish community and also U.S.-born — wanted to keep his job, insiders say, and the only reason he was removed is that Dermer wanted the post.

Oren and his two predecessors, Salai Meridor and Daniel Ayalon, made outreach to the U.S. Jewish community a hallmark of their tenure. Oren in particular was sensitive to anger in the Jewish community over Israel’s perceived discrimination against women and helped broker a tentative compromise that would allow for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

In 2009, Dermer said he considered cultivating ties with the American Jewish community’s liberal wing a waste of time. Dermer is believed to be behind the liberal lobby J Street’s inability to secure meetings with high-level officials during its Israel trips. Oren, by contrast, has forged low-level ties with the group.

Like other Jewish groups, J Street welcomed Dermer’s appointment.

Dermer also led efforts in the Prime Minister’s Office to limit the activities of human rights groups in Israel, casting them as agents of foreign powers. Some of the groups have the support of leading Jewish liberal benefactors from the United States.

Dermer’s defenders in Washington say those issues are dwarfed by the immediate challenges facing Israeli-U.S. interests in the Middle East.

“He will be an effective representative of the State of Israel generally, and Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically, as we are in a crucial period of U.S.-Israel relations with the need to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” said William Daroff, who directs the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief