As Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer is about to leave his Washington posting after seven years, he recaps the challenges and triumphs of a transformative term
Photos: Eli Greengart, APImages, GPO
Even measured against the crises that defined the Netanyahu-Obama relationship until then, it was a confrontation like nothing that Washington had seen.
Tension between then-president Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu had been building for months over the emergent Iran Deal when the news broke: Bibi would confront the US president in his own backyard, with a protocol-defying speech to a joint session of Congress to sound the alarm.
As the March 2015 event approached, the administration pointedly noted that Obama wouldn’t be watching. White House sources spoke of an unprecedented interference in American politics, and the media kept a ticker of Democrats planning to boycott the joint session amid talk of an embarrassingly empty plenum.
But it was a full House that a taut-faced Bibi addressed, and as he began, the deep voice started to work its magic. “We’re an ancient people,” he intoned, turning to history. “Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther, of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish People some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot.
“Today,” he continued, “the Jewish People face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.”
Then, jabbing the air for emphasis, came the Churchillian peroration. “Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand!” he declared, and the hall erupted in a standing ovation.
Prominent among the Israeli delegation that night was someone who knew the contents of the speech as well as Netanyahu himself. With an American English and a close relationship with the Israeli prime minister that had earned him the moniker “Bibi’s Brain,” Ambassador Ron Dermer had helped write the address — and five years later, he’s convinced that it was a turning point.
“Without that speech, I doubt that we’d have the peace deals with the Arab states today,” he tells Mishpacha in a lengthy exit interview shortly before his term in Washington ends.
Delivered via Zoom from the embassy’s “Golda Room” — against the background of an Andy Warhol painting of the late Israeli leader (if it’s an original, he tells me, it’s probably worth more than the entire embassy) — the distance does nothing to dampen the bombshell nature of that statement.
“What I didn’t anticipate at the time was the impact it was going to have on the Arab states,” he explains, “because they saw it almost as Israel’s declaration of independence from America. Up to that point, Israel had been perceived as a vassal of America, and why deal with the vassal when you can deal with America?”
But when Bibi took the podium against Obama’s wishes, that perception changed. “If the prime minister of Israel is willing to stand up for what he believes in, then we can be an independent force to rely on. And I can tell you as a fact that the speech dramatically accelerated contacts beneath the surface between Israel and many Arab states.”
The slew of peace accords negotiated in the twilight of his term means that Dermer takes home more trophies than many of his storied predecessors. But it’s not just peace deals that set him apart: He reminisces about his tenure as a visibly Orthodox ambassador to a White House that seemed a hub of heimish activity.
“Well, I missed that iconic Minchah on the White House lawn when the Abraham Accords were signed,” he laughs.
There’s awareness of the tradeoffs those agreements extracted — notably, giving up the opportunity to apply Israeli sovereignty to ancient Jewish heartlands. And hanging over our interview is the shadow of one of the politicians who boycotted that controversial speech to Congress.
Coming full circle, then–vice president Joe Biden — who as titular head of the Senate would have sat behind Netanyahu — is now president-elect. As Dermer packs his bags in Washington with a feeling of déjà vu, it remains to be seen whether Bibi and Biden will yet clash again over the Palestinians and Iran as they did in the Obama years.
Years of going to bat for Israel seem to have done something interesting to Ron Dermer’s interview style: As if to prevent the next question from hostile media, he doesn’t pause between paragraphs, but inside of them. But if Dermer’s conversation is the authoritative delivery of a big man used to dominating media encounters, he has the speechwriter’s eye for a colorful phrase.
“If you think about it from the Arab states’ point of view,” he says, “what you see is an Iranian tiger or an ISIS leopard, and you have an 800-pound American gorilla that is leaving the building, and they look around and see a 250-pound gorilla with a kippah on, and they say, well, you know, we’d like to have a strong partnership with you.”
That collection of zoological metaphors is the backstory of the most dramatic geopolitical story of the year: the peace deals between Israel and formerly hostile parts of the Arab world.
It all began, says Dermer, with an unusually far-sighted prime minister. “For as long as I’ve been privileged to know Netanyahu, which is 20 years, he’s believed that the paradigm could be reversed, and that a process of opening to the Arab states was possible even before a peace agreement with the Palestinians,” he says.
Most decisions-makers stuck to the narrative that in order to establish diplomatic relations with the Arab states, Israel first had to solve the Palestinian issue. But Netanyahu thought the prerequisite was far different.
“The critical element for that peace was for Israel to be strong militarily and technologically, and that would create the diplomatic possibility for countries in the region to move toward Israel in order to serve their own interests,” Dermer says. “That’s the deep background to what happened.”
Dermer may have heard of this tectonic shift in thinking years ago, but Bibi seems to have kept it close to his chest until recently. For many years, Netanyahu spoke only of “economic peace” with the Palestinians. In his famous — and on the Israeli right, infamous — speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, in which, under pressure from Obama, Bibi first talked of a Palestinian state, he also dwelled on Gulf economic dynamism.
But there was little hint of leveraging it to wider purpose. Even in a 2014 address to AIPAC, Netanyahu spoke simply of “countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America flocking to Israel for technology.”
Dermer claims that Bibi, in fact, was just waiting for the right moment. “I would say that the window of opportunity opened up about five years ago,” he says.
A public view of that window surfaced in 2016, when Bibi gave another of his prime-time performances at the United Nations.
“What I’m about to say is going to shock you,” the prime minister began. “Israel has a bright future at the UN — and the biggest change in attitudes toward Israel is taking place in the Arab world. For the first time in my lifetime, many states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy. Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS. I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals, work together openly.”
The shift in attitudes that Netanyahu mentioned, says Dermer, was based on three factors. “The first,” he lists, “was the rise of Iran as a very dangerous enemy in the region. That really reached its apex when the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, which gave them a clear path to a nuclear weapon — all they had to do was wait a few years, and then they wouldn’t have to sneak in or break in, they could just walk in. It created a tailwind of sanctions relief that Iran used to fuel this campaign of aggression throughout the region. That was the silver lining of the JCPOA, as the Iran Deal was called — it brought Israel and the Arab states together in opposition. They were silent, but they saw it the same way we did.”
The second issue, Dermer says, was Sunni radicalism. “Of the dangerous movements in the region, 1.0 was al-Qaeda, 2.0 was ISIS, and there will be a 3.0. So you have the empowering of Iran, which is a Shia radical power, you have the danger of a Sunni radical power, while simultaneously you have the rise of a third factor — a desire by the Americans to remove military forces from the region. And that makes Israel more important in the calculation of these countries, for their own security, to have Israel as a security partner.”
Israel’s rise as a counterweight to Iran takes on a familiar turn as Dermer mentions Mobileye, an autonomous driving tech company whose headquarters are just behind Mishpacha’s editorial offices in Jerusalem.
“Until recently,” he continues, “Israel had a miraculous story to tell the world. But we were not a factor in the calculation of countries when it came to their economies. Yet in this age of innovation, Israel is a global technological power. You see it in cyber, where Israel punches way above its weight. You see it in areas like autonomous vehicles, such as Mobileye, which was bought by Intel. You see it in artificial intelligence, which is becoming more and more important, and the emerging powers in this area are the United States, Russia, China, and Israel.”
Having long dreamed of a different approach to peacemaking, how did Bibi know when it was time to go public with his vision?
“Netanyahu’s speech to the UN was not, as we say, stam a statement — it was based on who he was meeting and what he was seeing,” explains Dermer. “And I can tell you that when I was in the prime minister’s office between 2009 and 2013, we would have many visitors who would come to Israel via Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, such as congressional delegations. They would listen to the prime minister and his analysis of the situation, where he would sketch out how he saw how things stood in the region. And they would respond, ‘You sound exactly like Mohammed ben Zayyid,’ or, ‘You sound like the Saudis.’ ”
Beginning his term as ambassador in October 2013, Dermer’s new base in Washington gave him a ringside seat as those new positions made themselves heard.
“I think Menachem Begin once said that you never ask an Israeli prime minister who he meets with at night — I would say the same thing when it comes to Israeli ambassadors,” says Dermer. “A lot of officials, a lot of ambassadors, even from countries who we don’t have formal relations with, made contact with me. I had the added advantage of the perception that I’m close to the prime minister, which is true, so people knew if they wanted to get a message to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I would be a pretty good conduit for that message.”
Dermer’s unusual closeness to his boss, plus a certain natural star power, made him stand out from the pack in Washington — a fact picked up by the media and fellow ambassadors.
“In his current post,” noted Foreign Policy, “Dermer stands apart from the Washington diplomatic set, a source of envy among his counterparts, who can only marvel at his close access to Washington’s power brokers. ‘Every Republican senator and congressman knows him. He is in a different ball game,’ said one senior European colleague.”
Still, back in 2016, whatever subterranean shifts were happening between Israel and the Arab world, the hard facts of the Obama White House’s skepticism blocked forward progress.
“The Obama administration had this fixed idea that we need to have a Palestinian peace in order to have peace with the Arab states,” Dermer says. “I can’t tell you how many times people told me, ‘If you make peace with the Palestinians, you will be able to make peace with 22 Arab states.’ And I would say to them, ‘Well, that’s great. And what if the Palestinians don’t want to make peace with us — why can’t we move forward with these Arab states?’ ”
Both Netanyahu and Dermer tried repeatedly sharing their new model with everyone from President Obama to Secretary of State John Kerry (at a distance of five years, Dermer can’t remember a conversation on the topic with Vice President Biden), but the administration always dismissed it.
“They chalked it up to avoiding negotiations on the Palestinian issue,” Dermer says.
That meant that even with Iran, Sunni radicalism, America’s retreat, and Israeli tech providing a push for Arab states to talk to Israel, an uncooperative White House, and 70 years of an Arab deep freeze kept the ties from warming.
It would take a personnel change in the West Wing to make that happen.
Meeting of Minds
Ambassador Ron Dermer is just what his title says — diplomatic — and so it’s left for others to say what he won’t: that the unconventional, unabashedly pro-Israel administration that swept to power in Trump’s 2016 earthquake was a breath of fresh air.
An early signal that Trump meant business when he talked about being pro-Israel was the Inauguration Day appointment of Ambassador David Friedman, a big supporter of the communities in Yehudah and Shomron. Within months, the new president’s proudly Orthodox, made-in-New York Middle East team headed by Jason Greenblatt was in Ramallah, talking softly and wielding a big stick on Palestinian obstructionism.
Trump’s first foreign trip as president was a statement of intent vis-à-vis Iran. A swing through Saudi Arabia and then Israel reversed the message of Obama’s early embrace of Iran at a keynote Cairo speech in which he’d called for daylight distancing from Israel. Then came a dizzying series of unequivocally pro-Israel moves: withdrawing from the Iran Deal, defunding UNRWA, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Traffic wasn’t all one-way though, Dermer hastens to add.
“It was rare, but we had disagreements with the Trump administration,” he says. “In December 2018, when they withdrew troops from Syria, we spoke up. It’s not for us to say where the US does or doesn’t send troops, but our policy is basically to do everything we can to get Iran out, and the way that policy has been a success is by Israel’s military action, by enormous sanctions pressures on Iran, and also by a US military presence on the ground — which is still ongoing, despite the reduction in troop numbers.”
Small issues aside, by early this year, with Israel basking in the warmth of unprecedented American benevolence, the stage was set for a breakthrough.
“The peace plan that Trump unveiled at the White House in January was the first time, at least in the prime minister’s view and in my view, that the United States put down a realistic plan that took into account Israel’s security concerns in a serious way,” recalls Dermer. “And that meant Israel maintaining security control west of the Jordan, pushing back against the fantasy that Israel should be flooded by millions of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, and dealing with the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria without calling to uproot hundreds of thousands of people.
“Yet to a diligent journalist,” continues Ambassador Dermer, “the fact that the Emirati, Bahraini, and Omani ambassadors were in the room when President Trump was unveiling his peace plan should have been evidence that the plan was built on that fundamental shift in the Arab states’ view. And I have to tell you that those are the three countries we knew about right away, where the leadership wanted to move into an alliance with Israel because of Iran, ISIS, reduced military footprints of the United States in the Middle East, and access to Israeli technology.”
Dermer’s “diligent journalist” reference is a swipe at a media that was overwhelmingly skeptical of Trump’s peace plan, deeming it yet another futile attempt to sideline the Palestinians. But the Washington press corps wasn’t reading the runes; it had missed the signals of the previous year.
“If you remember, in late 2017 this administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and many people thought that if the United States would do something like that, it would lead to instability throughout the region. But the Arab states’ muted response should have led people to say, ‘Wait a minute, something has changed here.’ The same thing is with the US recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which happened in the middle of 2019. They should have understood that this is a different Middle East.”
As 2019 unfolded, Dermer received messages that the Gulf states were almost ready to surface their new pro-Israel orientation.
“UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba is on the cover of many magazines, but he probably didn’t think he’d be on the cover of Mishpacha,” jokes Dermer. “I’ll put in a good word and see if you can get him on the cover, and then you can ask him what he said then. I myself never discuss private conversations with other ambassadors, but in my assessment, the real possibility for a breakthrough was not based simply on an analysis of the situation. It was based on seeing what I was seeing and talking to the people I was talking to.”
That breakthrough, though, was to come at a cost. The peace plan unveiled by President Trump in January had set off euphoria in the communities of Yehudah and Shomron, but, as expected, the Palestinians had reacted with howls of protest — although that didn’t stop preparations for Israel to apply sovereignty to large parts of the pre-1967 West Bank.
A joint American-Israeli team began mapping out the new contours of sovereign Israel, but then reports emerged that President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner had cooled on the idea. In a mid-June tour of Gush Etzion that I took just weeks before the scheduled annexation, I discovered that the senior settlement leadership was in the dark about the intentions of both the Americans and Netanyahu.
Efrat mayor Oded Revivi, who’d been at the euphoric roll-out of the peace plan in the White House just months earlier, mused to me almost as an afterthought, as we took in the green hills of the Gush, “There’s even a suggestion that the whole Trump deal is a spin, and Bibi will leverage that threat to gain a diplomatic breakthrough with the Arab states as his legacy.”
And then, barely two months later, the bombshell hit: Sovereignty was gone, and a historic peace agreement with Arab states — the Abraham Accords — was born. So was the talk of Israeli sovereignty all a bluff, a pipe dream for the half-million-strong settlement community that was never actually going to happen?
“No, it was totally serious, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t serve as leverage,” says Dermer. “The prime minister was very serious about moving ahead. There were several months that we were working on exactly what would be done. You have to understand, there are 800 square kilometers of territory, so it takes time.
“What happened is that we were moving ahead and there was the third election in Israel. Then the coalition agreement stated that the decision on extending sovereignty could not be brought before July 1. The prime minister had every intention of bringing that decision forward. And I spent countless hours at the White House formulating our plan to move forward with US backing. And the Emiratis understood, frankly, that it was not a sham.”
So intentional or not, the leverage created by the imminent threat of Israeli sovereignty propelled the Emirates to take a bold step. According to Dermer, they thought that if they surfaced the relationship now, then they could get Israel to agree to suspend the extension of sovereignty. So it became a bridge for moving the relationship into the light.
Once the UAE had crossed the Rubicon, things moved very quickly. Toward the end of June, the Emiratis contacted the White House, who informed Dermer that there was an offer on the table. “They were willing to fully normalize with us, if we would suspend sovereignty. Suspension by its nature is temporary, and not bound by a specific time. It’s what Kissinger once called constructive ambiguity.”
Dermer seems anxious to push back on the narrative in some parts of the Israeli right that the opening to the Gulf — states that never fought Israel anyhow — wasn’t worth the price of abandoning sovereignty.
According to Dermer, that narrative ignores the fundamental reality that some in Yehudah and Shomron refused to recognize: There was always a cost to the Trump peace plan, because it would mean recognizing that certain areas would go to the Palestinians.
But more importantly, both Dermer and Netanyahu recognized the opening to the Gulf for what it was. “The prime minister understood that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that could lead to peace with other Muslim countries.”
While a Zoom session isn’t necessarily conducive to getting a sense of who Ron Dermer really is, it’s enough to glimpse the graying around the temples that wasn’t there when Mishpacha last sat down with the ambassador. Binyamin Rose’s profile of the Miami Beach–born diplomat took place when Dermer was new in DC, his day full with responding to media requests in the thick of the 2014 Gaza war.
Bookending his time in Washington, the current interview finds Dermer in a totally different position; he’s gone from playing defense to diplomatic offense on Israel’s behalf.
So how did an all-American boy come to be one of Israel’s most effective envoys in living memory? How did an Orthodox ambassador come to clash with Obama’s progressive Jewish White House, then be embraced by Trump’s heimish West Wing?
Born in 1971 and raised traditional by his mother Yaffa — a native of Israel’s small pre-state town of Gedera — and father Jay, Dermer says his parents were in a real sense his mentors in public life.
“I’m blessed that my two role models were my father and mother,” he says. “For my father, who passed away before my bar mitzvah, integrity was the most important value. And hardly a day went by when I was growing up that my mother didn’t quote Pirkei Avot to instruct me about what I should do in any situation. Both my parents also instilled in me the importance of treating all people — Jews and non-Jews alike — with dignity and respect. They preached those values, but more importantly, they lived them.”
Beyond values, perhaps something of Dermer’s career trajectory can be traced to his father. Jay Dermer was a lawyer-turned-mayor of Miami Beach, and some of that political nous must have rubbed off on Ron. At the University of Pennsylvania, he became a student of well-known Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz, who called Dermer, according to a Politico profile, “the most talented student I’ve ever had.”
Thus began a long career as a political operative. Working for Luntz as he advised Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican House takeover, he went on to connect with Natan Sharansky, working on his successful 1995 campaign for the Knesset. Cementing his reputation on the Bush-era Republican right, Dermer co-authored a bestselling book, The Case for Democracy with Sharansky, arguing that democracy promotion was a solution for the ills of the Middle East.
It was Sharansky who made the introduction to Bibi, and a rock-solid alliance was born — as well as a media narrative that Dermer’s political background made him essentially a political operative, not a diplomat.
That media chatter became a storm when Dermer brokered Netanyahu’s controversial Congress speech. Reporting that the White House was furious, the New York Times quoted an anonymous administration official who accused Dermer of “repeatedly placing Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the US-Israel relationship.” Beltway observers contrasted Dermer’s no-holds-barred style of diplomacy with his immediate predecessor Michael Oren’s more conventional style.
But bruising as the encounter was, it spoke volumes of Dermer’s own self-belief.
The predecessors he admires are another clue to his approach to diplomacy. Asked which previous occupant of the Israeli embassy he looks up to most, Dermer responds: “There have been many ambassadors who made important contributions to advancing US-Israel relations, but two of my predecessors truly stood out: Abba Eban, who was the voice of Israel both in DC and the UN during the 1950s and made Israel’s case better than anyone in his generation; and Yitzhak Rabin, who was ambassador between 1968 and 1973, and helped anchor US strategic support for Israel at a critical time in our history.”
For the student of Israeli diplomatic history, the choice of Rabin says a lot about the outgoing ambassador himself. Rabin, a former chief of staff who would soon become prime minster, exploited divisions between the Nixon White House and State Department to scuttle the Rogers peace plan in 1969.
Much as the Obama-era media fulminated against Dermer’s break with diplomatic norms, playing hardball in Washington is a time-honored Israeli tradition.
In parallel with his rising political star, Dermer’s own observance was on the upswing as well. “Becoming shomer Shabbat wasn’t such a major transition,” he explains, “since not only did I grow up in a strictly kosher home, my mother also never cooked or traveled on Shabbat, and that has always been my custom as well. When I moved to Israel in 1996, I became more observant, which in Jerusalem is not difficult to do, and my wife grew up shomer Shabbat as well.”
Dermer’s transition to full observance was a process, some of which took place during his time at Oxford. Manny Weiss, a London-based, Brooklyn-born businessman who volunteered for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s campaign, has an eye for young conservative political talent on both sides of the Atlantic.
“He was our guest for Shabbos many times in London as a student, and I saw that he was a brilliant person,” says Mr. Weiss. “Being observant in his position is the biggest kiddush Hashem.”
As an issue-driven operator, Ron Dermer is momentarily at a loss when asked for his favorite “Orthodox in Washington” moment. “It’s just part of who I am, an openly Orthodox Jew,” he says. Then, after a pause, he describes a recent encounter that captures the way Dermer proudly wears his Jewish practice.
“A few months ago, I had a meeting with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. I brought him a very special mezuzah case, made from an Iron Dome interceptor missile. He’s a Catholic, and so I explained the Biblical meaning — how in Egypt 3,300 years ago, the Angel of Death passed over, and how the Jews put a sign on their doorposts to protect their homes. And I explained to him this mezuzah is made from an Iron Dome interceptor, which was a joint project of Israel and the United States to protect the people of Israel.
“He was actually quite moved by it,” Dermer says. But they had to cut the conversation short, as Shabbos was fast approaching and he had to leave.
The Israeli embassy at 3514 International Drive is an address that has hosted many illustrious names and star-studded events. But for Dermer, Purim was always a highlight — a holiday that meshed current celebration with deep historical undertones, a time when Ancient Persia, modern Iran, Jewish practice, and his high-stakes diplomacy melded.
“On Purim here, I went out of my way to invite Jews who otherwise would not have heard the Megillah,” Dermer shares. “And the last several years, we’ve had Jared and Ivanka Kushner at the Megillah reading here. It’s interesting, when you’re reading the Megillah and you’re talking about the imperial court at that time and the ancient Persians trying to destroy the Jewish People, and there you have representatives of the modern superpower, standing strong against modern Iran.”
It’s a short hop for the historically minded Dermer to complete the parallel.
“I actually told Pastor Hagee, a prominent American evangelical, that I believe that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as our capital will be remembered for generations. I said, ‘I don’t know if the Persians remember Cyrus, but the Jews remember Cyrus, because 2,500 years ago, he allowed us to rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem, and his name is inscribed in our Tanach. And because of that, he will be remembered forever by an eternal people.’ ”
Let’s Not Repeat Mistakes
Whatever the attractions of memory lane, for a diplomat the cold reality of the present matters most. Hanging like a giant question mark are the results of the recent presidential elections: What does a Biden presidency mean for Israel’s new alliances and old foes?
There’s no predicting what a Biden administration will be like without reference to Dermer’s own experience with the Obama White House.
“It was probably my most difficult time as ambassador,” he says of Bibi’s clash with the administration over Iran, “but it was my proudest as well.”
Seeing my puzzled response, Ambassador Dermer explains.
“Look, I would have loved to have gone to the White House of the previous administration after Torah reading every Monday and Thursday to tell them thank you for standing so firmly against Iran while it’s openly calling to destroy Israel. But it just didn’t happen. I remember Mrs. Mogherini of the European Union saying, ‘This deal has made the Middle East safer.’ Whenever I heard that, it was like nails on a chalkboard for me. The deal made things much more dangerous for the people who actually live in the region, and we were the guinea pigs in this failed experiment.
“The JCPOA virtually guaranteed that after ten to fifteen years, Iran would break out to a nuclear arsenal. And ten or fifteen years is a long time in the life of politics, but it’s a blink of an eye in the life of a nation.”
So what makes Dermer proud of that fraught time? His answer is simple: “The very fact that we could speak out.”
Then he shares a story. “I don’t know if I’ve told this publicly before,” he says. “There was about six weeks between the time Bibi’s speech was announced in mid-January to the time it was given in early March. Many people within the Jewish community here in Washington opposed the prime minister coming, and the government wanted me to speak to a group of the leadership here in town, 80 percent of whom were against the forthcoming speech.”
What do you say to so many informed, powerful operators who are convinced that it would be disastrous for Israel’s prime minister to make a public case against the leader for the free world? Once again, Dermer reached into recent Jewish history to make his case, describing the powerlessness felt by Jews as the Holocaust loomed.
At the Evian Conference in 1938, he reminded those in the room, Roosevelt was forced to deal with the huge refugee problem created by the Nazis’ rise to power. There were delegates from countries all over the world, including from then Mandatory Palestine. The yishuv’s representative was Golda Meir, there as an observer, but not even allowed to speak for her own people. She was powerless — apart from the Dominican Republic and the British, who took 10,000 children for the Kindertransport — the world slammed the door shut on the Jewish People.
“For me,” Dermer told his Washington audience at the time, “this controversy says a lot about the people who oppose the speech. Because I can tell you that if a British prime minister or an American president saw something as being a threat to the survival of their country, they would go anywhere in order to prevent that from happening.”
This potent brew of Holocaust memory, proud Jewish identity, and fearlessness is what defines Ron Dermer. It’s easy to see why Democrats of an Obama persuasion were infuriated by his adroit navigation of American politics to push back against the White House’s policies.
It’s ironic, then, that as Dermer’s term ends, the incoming Biden cabinet is starting to look like an Obama “Greatest Hits” lineup.
“I’ve met Joe Biden many times. He’s an extremely warm and friendly person,” says Dermer. “He’s somebody I think has a deep emotional commitment to Israel — he passes the ‘kishke test’ with flying colors. He’s been involved in politics for 50 years, and I think his bond with Israel is extremely strong.”
Warm words apart, Dermer must surely be worried about the direction of Biden’s stated policy on Iran. Even as the Islamic Republic vows bloody revenge on Israel for the still-unsolved killing of its leading nuclear scientist, the Biden team has pledged to re-enter the Iran Deal before renegotiating new terms. Is America set to fritter away the leverage built up by President Trump?
“We hope that a new administration works toward trying to find a common position where they will not go back to the mistakes of the past,” is all Dermer will say. “We can hope that the next administration will say to themselves, look, this is not 2015, this is 2021. There has been a historic breakthrough in the region. How can we continue to move forward with that success?”
For someone who dreamed of raising his children in Israel, Ron Dermer has been singularly unsuccessful. For ten of the last 15 years, the idealist who wanted to come to the Jewish homeland has lived in Washington, D.C., first as economic envoy and then as ambassador. His American-accented Hebrew is good, but showing signs of rusting up in foreign climes. Now, with his front-line service in America’s capital over, what will Ron Dermer do at the ripe old age of 49?
If rumor is to be believed, Bibi wants to appoint him to head Israel’s National Security Council. Other rumors have Netanyahu speaking of both Dermer and Mossad director Yossi Cohen as his successors. What does the diplomat himself think of those whisperings?
“I don’t know if the prime minister said that,” he replies. “But if he did, then I think it shows how he sees the subject that is most important in his eyes, which is the Iranian existential threat. And if he did say such a thing, it’s because he views both of us as the two people who see eye-to-eye with him on this.”
For now, he says, his focus is on maximizing the opportunity of the Trump administration’s final weeks. “Sometimes at the end of a presidential term, lots of things can happen.”
He won’t say more, except to indicate that it’s to reverse the damage inflicted at the very end of Obama’s lame-duck administration, which passed UN Resolution 2334, which was very hostile to Israel’s settlements.
And although the country he’s coming home to seems to be in banana-republic territory as fourth elections loom, Dermer is actually confident. Perhaps it’s the dysfunction he leaves behind in warring Washington, but the ambassador thinks Israel is in a good situation.
“I think Israel is actually much less divided than it was when I first moved there in the mid-’90s,” he says, referring to the collapse of the left, which has earned the Likud a decade in power. “I think there is a greater consensus today on many of the issues than there was back then. Today, the division in Israel is less about policy and more about personality.”
Ron Dermer returns to a country with familiar struggles, but — partly thanks to him — new geopolitical breathing space. His unusual combination of international-grade diplomacy and Jewish pride will undoubtedly serve him in finding another challenge to take on.
But if there’s one thing that propels him forward, it’s the majesty and sheer sweep of the Jewish past. Having had a ringside seat as Divine providence unfolded dramatic events for his people, he says, “Meeting a foreign leader as representative of a small, 72-year-old country doesn’t give you that much confidence. But as I constantly told myself, I come from a people who had leaders like King David three thousand years ago.”
They Lived the Horror and Rebuilt
If the Holocaust looms large in the thinking of Ron Dermer, it’s largely thanks to one couple: Joseph and Rivka Weiss z”l.
Hosted by their son Mr. Manny Weiss in London for Shabbos when studying at Oxford in the ’90s, Ron Dermer went on to form a bond with the parents in the US, which continued when they moved to Jerusalem. He also formed a close bond with Manny’s brother, well-known Karliner askan Rabbi Moshe Weiss.
“When I listen to that siren blare in Israel every year,” he told a Congressional Holocaust Ceremony in 2014 as ambassador, “I think of the six million branches on the tree of our people that were cut down. But I also think of Joseph and Rivka Weiss — of their four sons, 18 grandchildren, and some three-dozen and counting great-grandchildren, who often gather together in Jerusalem to rejoice over a bar or bat mitzvah, a wedding or the birth of a child.”
Even at a distance of years, Ron Dermer is inspired by the spiritual fortitude of people who had seen the worst, and yet rebuilt.
“Joseph was a very special man, who embodied the resilience of our people and whose face simply radiated with pride,” he says of the man who was very close to gedolei Yisrael, including the Kaliver Rebbe. “It was surely the pride of someone who had survived Auschwitz and defied the Nazis by instilling in his four sons the same ironclad determination that he had to carry on the traditions of our people. Frankly, I don’t think I ever saw anyone happier than when Joseph Weiss was surrounded by his grandchildren in Jerusalem.”
The Right Words
Within a few sentences of starting our interview, I already have a good idea of what makes Ron Dermer an effective diplomat: Very simply, he says the right thing to the right person.
“I will tell you one thing quickly,” he says. “Of all the interviews that I’ve done — and I’ve been on this cover, on that cover — my previous Mishpacha interview is the one that had the greatest impact on my wife’s friends, because she went to Bais Yaakov of Baltimore. So if anyone were to write a profile of me in the New York Times, it would be like a tree falling in the forest, you know? But when Mishpacha did it, then my wife’s old friends contacted her. Some of them didn’t know I’d been appointed ambassador.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 839)
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