Settlements, poverty not to blame for attacks, Israeli envoy tells S.F. audience

Addressing what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly,” Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer saved the good for last during a March 28 talk at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.

The bad was the “collapse” of the Middle East at the hands of “militant Islam,” he told an audience of some 250.

“The world that they want to create is a world that repels all,” he emphasized. “It’s a world where women are chattel, where gays are hanged and where minorities are persecuted.”

The American-born Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States since October 2013, kicked off his first official West Coast tour at Emanu-El. The talk was billed as a discussion of the challenges facing Israel.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer at Congregation Emanu-El on March 28 photo/courtesy israeli consulate

A close adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a former Republican political operative, Dermer danced around a clash of civilizations as he discussed threats coming from Iran, Hezbollah and the Islamic State.

But he made certain to draw a line between the actions of terrorist groups in the Middle East and individual Muslims, thumping the lectern as he told the crowd that “the greatest victims of militant Islam are Muslims. Do not forget that.”

The speech was standard fare for a diplomat who has been called “Bibi’s brain” because of his tight relationship with Netanyahu. He recited standard hasbara (public relations) messages, emphasizing both Israel’s strength and vulnerabilities.

Dermer called Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas a “supposed moderate” inciting Palestinians to attack Israeli civilians during the current wave of terrorism.

“Someone is throwing red meat in front of these lone wolves,” Dermer said. “If the international community would spend one-10th the time that they spend talking about settlements talking [instead] about incitement in Palestinian society, then we would be much closer to peace.”

The ambassador lambasted those who claim that poverty and hopelessness, resulting from the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, are driving terrorism.

“Poverty has nothing to do with terrorism,” Dermer said. He also mocked those who claimed the stalled peace process was to blame for the recent round of violence, noting that Palestinian attacks were a hallmark of peace negotiations during the 1990s.

“When the peace process is racing ahead, that’s the reason there’s terrorism, and when the peace process is at a standstill, then that’s the reason,” Dermer said.

As far as the settlements obstructing peace or spurring terror, he said, “If your sense of history goes back until breakfast, then maybe.”

Dermer claimed the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a refusal by the Palestinians to accept that Jews are a people rather than solely a religion and that they have ancestral ties to the land of Israel.

“If they recognize a Jewish connection to this land, the whole edifice of their narrative collapses because the Jewish people are not foreigners,” Dermer said. “When the Jewish people returned to Israel, they came home.”

Moving from the bad to the ugly, Dermer touched on what he sees as the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in anti-Israel activities around the world. Speaking wryly, he noted that the early Zionists were convinced anti-Semitism sprang from the lack of a Jewish state, whereas today many blame the existence of a Jewish state for such discrimination.

Dermer praised last week’s decision by the University of California’s Board of Regents to condemn “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” on campuses within the system.

Turning to “the good,” Dermer reminded the audience that while “Jews tend to see the glass as one-16th empty,” it is in fact “overflowing.”

Ticking off the familiar Israeli accomplishments in technology and military strength, Dermer said Israel’s economy was well positioned for the future, although he acknowledged the issue of income inequality during the question period. He said the last two Israeli elections had centered on the cost of cottage cheese and housing, respectively.

“The cost of housing is a real problem and you people in San Francisco can relate,” Dermer said to knowing chuckles.

On the political front, Dermer said that despite the row over the Iranian nuclear deal, he expected the alliance between the United States and Israel to grow stronger in the coming years as the Middle East remains largely unstable.

Dermer concluded his comments by imploring the Bay Area Jewish community to invest in Jewish education, saying there was no better way to help the Jewish state.

“If the leaders in the Bay Area, which is a place of great gold rushes throughout history and even today,” put together a comprehensive scholarship fund for Jewish education, that would do “more for the future of the State of Israel than anything else,” he said.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.