Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer saved his most intriguing insight for the end of a thoughtful 75-minute discussion with journalist Ethan Bronner at a Jewish Week forum at the Sutton Place Synagogue on Monday evening. It was during his final comment that the ambassador described what he called “a potential threat to Israel and to Jews everywhere,” not from an outside force but from a perilous way of perceiving right and wrong in today’s world.
Throughout history, Dermer said, the Jewish people, so often mistreated and politically weak, incorporated the internal lesson that “might does not make right” and that a clear distinction was to be made between morality and political power. “The danger today,” he asserted, “is that many think might is inherently WRONG, unjust,” not consistent with Jewish values.
But at a time when Jews in America have significant influence and when Israel has achieved sovereignty and clout, such thinking should no longer apply, he insisted.
In a world where the Jewish state faces enemies committed to its destruction, “it’s dangerous for Israel and Jews everywhere to think power is wrong.” It just needs to be applied wisely and sparingly. After centuries of defenselessness and suffering at the hands of others, “we [in Israel] make mistakes, but we are no longer spectators; we are on the field.”
Dermer did not make mention of critics of the government who, rather than question Israel’s right to defend itself, maintain that Jerusalem misuses its power. They say the government seeks to keep the Palestinians down rather than foster a climate conducive to progress.
Political power was a theme that ran through many of Dermer’s remarks.
Early in the evening he made a point that Israel, tiny as it is — representing one-tenth of 1 percent of the world population — is becoming “more powerful in a world where international relations are driven not by values but by power.” He made the case that Israel is one of America’s most formidable and reliable allies, on a par, if not exceeding, Britain and France. He cited Mossad as “the best intelligence service in the world” and noted Israel’s military strength and world leadership in technology and cyber power.
Israel’s need to be strong and defend itself is particularly significant, he said, at a time when the Trump administration, and most Americans, want to see the U.S. less involved in military operations overseas, including the Mideast.
Listening to Dermer, the 47-year-old native of Miami Beach who made aliyah in 1996, you feel like you are listening to Prime Minister Netanyahu — not only in terms of outlook and policy but in the forceful articulation of views, often citing Jewish history going back centuries as well as including current American cultural references, like his thoughts on the previous night’s Super Bowl. (He called New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft a “super mensch.”)
The Dermer-Netanyahu parallels should be no surprise, given that Dermer has worked with and for Netanyahu for 19 years — helping to run his political campaigns and write his speeches as well as having his ear as one of the rare Israeli officials the prime minister relies on and trusts.
Like his boss, Dermer has the gift of gab, and while he praised Bronner, the former Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times and current senior editor at Bloomberg News, as the finest and most accurate journalist he has dealt with, he didn’t give him much of a chance to follow up on questions. Dermer even jokingly acknowledged that he tends to run too long in offering his thoughts. But they were substantive and offered real insights into his, and no doubt Netanyahu’s, views on a wide range of issues.
Here are a few highlights:
- Barack Obama: Dermer, who came to his Washington post in 2013, during the second Obama administration, said he “100 percent believes” that President Obama felt the Iran nuclear deal was better for Israel as well as America. “I don’t question his sincerity; I just disagreed with his judgement on what was a life-or-death issue for Israel.”
- Proudest Moment as Ambassador: Dermer’s highlight was a high point of controversy for many American Jews, when Netanyahu spoke to both Houses of Congress in March 2015 to decry the proposed Iran deal. Republicans were enthusiastic, Democrats were upset, feeling squeezed between loyalty to their president and support for Israel.
The decision “was not at all controversial to me,” Dermer told the large crowd at the synagogue. “Any prime minister who would not give that speech wouldn’t deserve to be prime minister,” he said, noting that a nation’s “sovereignty means the power to defend itself” and in Israel’s case, Netanyahu was responding to a potential existential threat to his country and utilizing his “right and duty to speak on an issue of our very survival.
He added that without Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, he had no doubt that “we would not be where we are today… . Ultimately, you had President Trump get elected saying he was going to withdraw from the nuclear deal, and he did withdraw.
Noting the criticism that resulted from the speech, Dermer said that what concerned him the most was a comment by Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) that the invitation to Netanyahu was an affront to the first African-American president. “That hit me like a ton of bricks,” Dermer said, noting that it led him to meet personally with 40 of the 45 members of the Congressional Black Caucus to emphasize that, however they chose to vote on the Iran deal, this was not about race and that Israel did not want to see “a rupture in black-Jewish relations
“Most of those I met with felt I was sincere, and [that those meetings were] the best use of my time as ambassador” in seeking to explain that the vote as one of a policy disagreement, and nothing more.
- President Trump: Dermer emphasized that every Israeli prime minister seeks to have a strong, positive relationship with the president of the U.S. He said that Trump’s decision to scrap the Iran deal was the most important decision for Israel a president has made, and noted that his statement at an Illinois rally after the Pittsburgh killings — that we will see the destruction of those who seek the destruction of the Jews — was the strongest such statement he had ever heard from someone who isn’t Jewish.
That said, Dermer said he criticized the president’s statement after the Charlottesville riot of 2017, noting “it’s important to call things out when appropriate.” He also cautioned against blaming Trump in ways that “fit a narrative,” like the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.S., which he said comes from both left and right and is the result of many factors.
- J Street: Dermer acknowledged that he would not meet with the left-leaning lobby. He cited the Iran deal as the point where, for him, J Street crossed the line by lobbying for the deal even though no Zionist party in Israel supported it. “To be pro-Israel, I think, means that on matters of life and death, when all of the Israeli public are united,” lobbying for the opposite point of view: “I don’t think that’s a Zionist response.”
- A Palestinian State: The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not the key to resolving Mideast crises, Dermer said, nor is it the moral crisis for our time, as some argue. Echoing the sentiments of the prime minister, he said the issue of statehood is about power, so the questions to ask are “would the Palestinian state have an army? What about control of air space so close to Israel?” Israelis would favor the Palestinians governing themselves but without presenting a threat to Israeli security. In the meantime, Dermer charged that the Palestinian leadership has been more focused on defeating Israel than their right to self-determination.
- Generational Distancing from Israel: “What we’re seeing is a return to anti-Zionism, even with the Jewish community. He attributes this to the constantly shifting relationship between American Jews and Israel, where the center of Jewish life has shifted from the U.S to Israel, where 43 percent of world Jewry lives (35 percent in the U.S.); to the generational change where young people today have never experienced a world with a vulnerable Israel; and to the “impact of attenuated Jewish identity.” He believes there is a strong corollary between support for Israel and having a strong Jewish identity.
“I wish the big issues” focused on prayer at the Western Wall, conversions, etc., Dermer said, but they are far more basic than that.
Bronner sought to press the ambassador on why Israel has prevented some American critics of Israel to enter the country. Dermer countered that Israel has “no obligation” to allow in people who support BDS, a movement whose leaders “fundamentally seek the annihilation of Israel.” That doesn’t mean all BDS supporters oppose Israel’s right to exist, he said, but he noted that “you can be an anti-Semite in effect even if not in intention.”
In taking this stand, Dermer did not deal with those who have a more nuanced position in opposing settlements while otherwise supporting Israel. And he left the impression with some that while Israel has the right to continue the practice of banning critics, it may not be a smart policy in terms of the optics and impressions.
Overall, Dermer came across as sharp, articulate, compelling and confident — qualities similar to those of his boss. Whether or not you agree with them on issues, you can see why most Israelis, who place security at the top of their priorities, have kept them in power. Whether that holds for the April 9 elections, with Netanyahu facing possible indictment and a strong challenge from former military hero Benny Gantz, remains to be seen.