State of Tel Aviv

In Conversation with Ambassador Ron Dermer


Note From the Editor, Vivian Bercovici:

Full Disclosure Ruthie Blum is a very good personal friend who also happens to be a brilliant writer. Her sharp, tart prose exposes double-talk and hypocrisy elegantly and unsparingly. After living in Israel for 45 years, she has also developed a hammer-like directness that is embedded in the national DNA here, making everything she writes – and her conversation – a rollicking journey.

Known for her political analysis and strong right-wing views, you could say that these traits, as well, are in her family DNA, coming, as she does, from one of the most illustrious American families of letters. Her father, Norman Podhoretz, is a legend who crossed over in the 1960s from the left, dismayed by its increasing radicalism and anti-Americanism. Joining him at the time were strong figures like Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Equally influential and also a celebrated writer and speaker was Ruthie’s recently deceased mother, Midge Decter z”l, famous for taking on the women’s lib movement. Brother John Podhoretz continues the family’s decades-long involvement with the peerless Commentary magazine, where I have been privileged to have written in recent years. (I may have been the only Canadian teenager to subscribe to that magazine in the 1970s. Perhaps John can confirm.)

For her State of Tel Aviv debut, Ruthie and I discussed various possibilities, but we both loved the idea of her returning to her roots as an interviewer. She has the chops to work with the toughest and the smartest and get the best stuff out of them.

And so we thought that a conversation with the redoubtable Ambassador Ron Dermer was a great start. Dermer served as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. for seven years – spanning the Obama and Trump administrations. He is also quite possibly the individual who has most significantly and consistently engaged in and influenced Israeli-U.S. relations throughout that period.

Dermer’s tenure as Ambassador ended in 2021, he is now back in his adopted hometown of Jerusalem with his family and, from the sound of things, busy as ever.

I first met Dermer when I was in office serving as the Canadian Ambassador to Israel. Standing around in Heathrow Airport waiting for the secondary pre-boarding security for an Israel-bound flight, I noticed this very tall guy standing off to the side. His baseball cap was pulled down low. He did not want to be seen. Which, of course, made me even more curious.

I quickly recognized him and introduced myself. We had a lovely chat about this and that. This was in the thick of the leadup to then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s epic speech made to a joint session of Congress in March, 2015. In fact, Dermer’s comments about that historical event, shared in Ruthie’s interview, give you a glimpse of the strength of character and principle that infuse the man. Disagree with him all you want, but Dermer understands power, has values and articulates his purpose with enviable clarity and brevity.

A Dermer-Blum meeting is a jewel. Savor it. A perfect weekend read.


“The biggest problem in dealing with Israel’s challenges is recognizing the terrain,” says Ron Dermer, offering the analogy of a desert vs. an ocean. “Because if we bring a ship to the former or a camel to the latter, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

The former Israeli Ambassador to the United States hit the ground running upon his return to Jerusalem in January 2021 after a seven-year stint in Washington, D.C. Among other endeavors, he’s working on a book laying out these challenges, with an emphasis on U.S.-Israel relations, Diaspora Jewry and war and peace.

The 51-year-old immigrant to Israel from Florida is well-versed in all three of these big issues. A longtime confidant of and adviser to former prime minister and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu—and co-author of Natan Sharansky’s 2004 best-seller, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror—Dermer has been immersed in issues related to global politics and the Jewish state for much of his adult life.

Currently, he is a non-resident fellow at the D.C.-based Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), and co-hosts an aptly named podcast, “Diplomatically Incorrect,” with JINSA CEO Michael Makovsky.

Dermer has also entered the private sector in Jerusalem. He recently joined a boutique investment firm that “shares his values.” He is particularly focused on leveraging Israeli technology in the Gulf states as an “entrée into the Arab/Muslim world to build and strengthen the foundations of peace.”

In an hour-long interview with State of Tel Aviv, the controversial former envoy also discusses Israel’s internal impasses, perhaps foremost among them the political power of the ultra-Orthodox.

ON RELIGIOUS REFORM

Q: The current Israeli government, which recently lost its majority in the Knesset, was forged without the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties. One of its efforts, which is supported by many Jews at home and abroad, has been to introduce reforms that would reduce the power of the Chief Rabbinate and enhance the separation between “church and state” in Israel. Is this a positive development?

A: To answer, one has to ask what the chances are of the ultra-Orthodox parties not being part of an Israeli government in the next ten years. Most Israelis would say that there’s no chance. I agree and guarantee that any religious reforms undertaken now are going to be reversed.

To implement real reform, you have to have the ultra-Orthodox engaged in, and as part of, the process. The unique window of opportunity for this comes when they are members of the governing coalition, but cannot topple it.

The natural tendency in politics is for those in the opposition to take a very hard line even against changes that the vast majority of them actually agree with. It is when those same politicians are in the coalition and are not powerful enough to topple it that they explain to their constituencies why this or that reform is not so bad, or how they prevented something worse from happening by backing it. Those are the reforms that hold over time, because once the ultra-Orthodox put a kosher stamp on a religious reform, it’s done.

Israel has a parliamentary, not a presidential, system.

[Editor’s note: Parliamentary systems are multi-party and may select from a number of options with respect to how to apportion seats in the legislative house. Israel adopted proportional representation, which allocates Knesset seats based on proportion of the vote. As no single party ever has a majority, the reality is that intense negotiations, during which smaller parties exert disproportionate influence, lead to formations of coalitions. Power is inherently fragile, and governments can be toppled by the smallest niche party if it is dissatisfied.]

Small parties can topple governments. Thus, they will always prevail on those issues that are most important to them but not to the main party of the coalition. This is because the bigger party will be prepared to compromise on those niche issues in order to focus on the things that it considers to be most crucial.

The people complaining about the power of the Rabbinate forget how the institution went from having mostly national-religious rabbis to having ultra-Orthodox ones. The shift happened in the mid-1990s, and it was due to the Oslo Accords, for which the Shas Party was critical. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin persuaded Shas not to oppose the deal. But the quid pro quo was control of the Rabbinate. At the time, the attitude was that the religious issue could be dealt with at a later stage, and that signing a peace deal with the Palestinians was more important.

What people don’t realize is that this happened under a left-wing government, not a right-wing one.

ON THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT

Q: What is the current government’s “big issue” that the smaller parties can use as leverage in order not to topple the coalition?

A: I don’t see a big issue. It’s all about survival—about keeping the coalition together. Every government wants to stay in power, of course, but usually it has a greater goal. And I don’t see that here, even on Iran. Remember, unlike in the United States, Israel’s head of state is not the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

When the president of the United States orders the military to do something, it has to obey, unless the order is patently illegal. In Israel, the prime minister has to get the security cabinet to approve military moves, and the IDF is subordinate to that cabinet.

A strong prime minister can get approval from the security cabinet either when a majority of its members are from his party or when he has the support of the public. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has neither.

He may have the same views as his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, when it comes to operations against Iran, for example. But his party has only two ministers in the security cabinet and he has only 5 percent public popularity. So, he doesn’t have the tools that a prime minister usually needs in order to accomplish his goals.

Under the current circumstances as I see them, Israel has a political prime minister, Yair Lapid; an economic prime minister, Avigdor Liberman—who not only controls the Finance Ministry but the Knesset Finance Committee, as well; and the security prime minister is IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Bennett, thus, is in a position of weakness. This is not a question of his character, but rather of the political reality in which he is functioning; he’s not going to be able to override opposition from the military on anything.

Extending the life of the government is not going to change that. Only a strong government that is coherent on policy can do that. Israel always has an unstable political system, but it has had governments that are coherent on policy.



ON NETANYAHU’S SPEECH TO CONGRESS AGAINST THE NUCLEAR DEAL WITH IRAN

Q: You were ambassador to the US when Netanyahu made his famous March 3, 2015 speech to a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress in which he warned against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. He was heavily criticized, particularly in light of President Barack Obama’s fierce opposition to it, and you were accused of being a key instigator of that event.

A: That speech was the proudest moment I had as ambassador, because the job of an Israeli prime minister is to speak out on matters that affect the security and national survival of his country. A prime minister who wouldn’t answer an invitation to speak before the American Congress and public on such an issue would not be worthy of sitting five minutes in his chair.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed parliaments all over the world by Zoom, as well as the U.S. Congress, where he spoke against the policy of the sitting American president. He requested a no-fly zone, which President Joe Biden already said he wasn’t going to establish. I don’t begrudge him for speaking publicly against the policy of the sitting U.S. president, because that’s what he, as Ukraine’s leader, has to do. Even if his demand was not met.

But in Netanyahu’s case, the very fact that he explained why the JCPOA was so dangerous caused an uproar. He was criticized for not having expressed his concerns behind closed doors. It’s a false accusation, because we did speak to the U.S. administration behind closed doors. They just weren’t listening.

The speech was a last-resort effort to raise the alarm among the American people about what was happening, to let them know and bring it directly to Congress where there would be a vote. One impact of the speech was that there was a congressional majority for a review mechanism requiring a re-ratification of the deal every few months.

The second impact was bipartisan opposition to the deal. The entire Republican Party opposed it. So did two dozen Democrats in the House and four Democratic senators, including today’s majority leader, Chuck Schumer, who was then minority leader; Bob Menendez, today head of the Foreign Relations Committee; Ben Cardin; and Joe Manchin, now one of the senators best known for influencing policy.

The deal was rejected by the House, and a majority of the Senate was prepared to vote against it, but they didn’t reach the magic number, 60, which is the filibuster-proof number. But it was clear opposition, and because the entire Republican Party lined up against it, all the presidential candidates running in 2016 came into a political environment in which they had to oppose it. In fact, it was the number one foreign-policy issue in the campaign.

Two months after Netanyahu’s speech, Donald Trump came down an escalator and announced his candidacy for president, and took a position against the JCPOA. He said that he would immediately get out of it. Now, he didn’t get out of it immediately; it took him about a year and a half to withdraw, and another year before he started putting real economic pressure on Iran. To his credit, he had to overcome opposition from the initial national-security apparatus, the secretary of defense and the secretary of state.

But I can guarantee that if Netanyahu hadn’t taken the public stand that he did, Trump wouldn’t have adopted that position, and it wouldn’t have had the impact that it did. So, though we lost the battle of preventing the deal, we won a much bigger one with Trump’s withdrawal from it.

Furthermore, there wouldn’t have been the Abraham Accords without Netanyahu’s stand.

Q: Why? Were the Gulf leaders watching Netanyahu’s speech?

A: Not only were they watching it, they were in awe that Netanyahu was willing to stand up to Washington. For them, it was sort of Israel’s declaration of independence from America. And they reached out to us immediately after that. We had been developing relations with them for some time behind the scenes, and they were going about 10 kilometers an hour. After Netanyahu’s speech, they sped up to 100.

I had not anticipated that; it hadn’t been on my radar. I wasn’t thinking about how the speech was going to affect our relations with the Gulf. I was focused on trying to stop another “Munich” agreement.

But senior Arab officials saw it and immediately afterwards told Netanyahu, “Thank you for speaking for us.” He had said publicly what they were only saying privately; he was their voice in the region. And that accelerated the process that ultimately surfaced with the Abraham Accords.

Trump’s stance against Iran also led to the Abraham Accords, because it created the political space for these Arab leaders to overcome 60-70 years of poison against Israel, and publicly to stand by the leadership of the United States against Iran, as critical to their national security.

ON THE FUTURE OF THE ABRAHAM ACCORDS

Q: Given the Biden administration’s push to return to the JCPOA and what you describe as Bennett’s weak political position, are the Abraham Accords in danger? Does the United Arab Emirates’ criticism of Israel during the riots on the Temple Mount—and re-introduction of the Palestinians as a key issue—indicate that the Gulf States are reconsidering the Abraham Accords?

A: No. The reason that they signed the Accords is because of a long-term understanding on the part of the leaders who made peace with Israel that it was in their national-security and economic interests. They see Israel as a regional military power and, in some areas, such as cyber, intel, and weapons development, as among world leaders. And the other factor is the prosperity factor, where they see Israel as a second Silicon Valley, so they understand that Israel can help them transform from being totally dependent on a single crop, in this case oil and gas, to being able to help strengthen their countries in the future. At the same time, they see the United States as reducing its military footprint in the Middle East and on its way out of the region.

That calculus hasn’t changed much, so I don’t see the fundamentals that were the basis of the Abraham Accords changing. What has changed of late is the Arab states’ ability to surface and navigate it. Their lives are made more complicated when the Palestinians are put in the mix, and this is what the Biden administration doesn’t understand about what led to and expanded the Abraham Accords. Trump’s policy of confronting Iran and embracing Israel—and of giving the Palestinians a path to peace should they choose to enter it, but not chasing after them—actually created an environment that enabled the surfacing of those accords.

The question about the administration in Washington is whether it’s facilitating a breakthrough or serving as an obstacle to one.

The Trump administration did the former. The Biden administration is doing the latter. Putting the Palestinian issue front and center again, while appeasing Iran, is a mistake and makes it harder for additional Arab leaders to join the accords, but I think that those who have already surfaced are there to stay, unless their interests change.

Q: What about Palestinian interests?

A: The Palestinians shouldn’t be given a veto over progress, as has been the case in the 25 years since Oslo, leading to one failure after another. Instead, Israel needs to enhance and expand the peace agreements, adding additional ones. If there were, say, 10, 12, 14 more countries included, Israel would be able to strengthen the forces within Palestinian society that want to reach an accommodation. What we have seen, certainly in the last decade and a half, is that the more powerful Israel becomes militarily, economically, technologically, and diplomatically, the greater number of allies it has.


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About Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an American-Israeli columnist, is a winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary and author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the “Arab Spring.”
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