The Closer: Why Ron Dermer may be Bibi’s perfect peace envoy

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Ron Dermer, Israel’s next envoy to the United States, may be a sharp-elbowed Republican partisan who appeared to openly back Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2012 presidential campaign, and who has lived longer in the United States than he has in Israel, as Akiva Eldar wrote this week for Al-Monitor.

Other observers of US-Israel relations say while this may be true, it is not the full picture and misses the point. Dermer’s appointment, in this score, is not at all controversial. He has the ear of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the gold standard for any ambassador. Dermer, because of his understanding of US politics and ties to the GOP, may be the perfect envoy to sell peace to the right if Netanyahu decides to get serious about negotiations, as many Israeli analysts suspect he is preparing to do.

“All signs point to the possibility that Netanyahu is relatively serious about going back to negotiations and attempting to do something,” Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli journalist and political analyst told me Wednesday.

“It is customary to say in Israel that it is easier for left-wing governments to make war, and right-wing governments to make peace,” Rosner said. “If you think about the Israeli ambassador to the US, and …the case in which the Obama administration attempts to advance some sort of peace process or any other controversial policy with the right wing, if Dermer stands behind the policy and endorses it, it will be much easier both for the government of Israel and for the [U.S.] administration to let this policy pass in the Congress.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, currently on his sixth visit to the Middle East, looks increasingly close to realizing his goal of getting Israeli Palestinian peace talks re-launched, many observers believe.

“For the Obama administration, this makes Dermer more important,” Rosner said. “It also makes him a tool with which to devise a policy that Congress and the opposition cannot truly oppose.”

“For Bibi, it’s a good choice,” said Amir Radberg, an Israeli-American who previously worked as a legislative analyst at the Israeli embassy in Washington from 1993-2003. “If he continues with his current agenda, he will have an eloquent speaker to argue for him. If he needs to sell peace to the GOP and right-wing Jews, [Dermer] will handle them much better than a professional diplomat.”

In many ways, Dermer, 42, is a mirror image of Dan Shapiro, Obama’s highly-regarded ambassador to Israel. Shapiro, 44, previously served as the Obama campaign’s liaison to the Jewish community and as Obama’s first term White House Middle East advisor. As such, Shapiro is an avowed Obama/Democratic partisan with a close personal and direct tie to the president, who is known to Israeli interlocutors to be speaking for the president. Similarly, Dermer, a longtime political advisor to Netanyahu, is a partisan who has the trust of the Prime Minister, and can speak for him.

“The fact that he is close to Netanyahu is a huge advantage,” Rosner said. “When people in the administration talk to the ambassador, the first and most important thing for them to know is that their conversation has some value. To speak to someone who has no sway with Israeli government, is a waste of time. And speaking to Dermer will not be waste of time.”

Meantime, Rosner notes, there are many signs that Netanyahu is serious about entering into peace negotiations with the Palestinians. “The noose is getting tighter,” Rosner said. “Politically speaking, he’s in big trouble within his own party. However, if he doesn’t do anything about the peace process, he will have even bigger trouble with his coalition and the public.”

“It’s better for him to pursue something in the hope that if his approval ratings go up, his party will somehow cave,” Rosner said. “Or he can do what [former Israeli Prime Minsiter Ariel] Sharon did a couple years ago: abandon his party and move to the center. Just leaving things as they are now almost guarantees that this will be his last term as prime minister.”

(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ron Dermer. Photo credit, Dudi Vaaknin, courtesy of Israeli government press office.)

US calls Israel settlement announcement ‘counterproductive’


In a move the United States called “counterproductive,” Israel on Friday announced that it will build 3,000 new settler homes, including in a sensitive zone of East Jerusalem. The Israeli announcement came a day after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine’s status in the world body, against the wishes of the United States and Jerusalem.

The United States and Europe have long opposed Israeli construction in the sensitive E1 zone connecting Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adunim, north of the capital.

“We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel by email Friday.

“We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder [to] resume direct negotiations or achieve of a two state solution,” Vietor continued. “Direct negotiations remain our goal and we encourage all parties to take steps to make that easier to achieve.”

“If the announcement is real and not simply a PR move for internal politics reasons, it should spur the Administration into action, as the United States has been adamant for many years, including in the Bush Administration, that Israel not build in E-1,” former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told the Back Channel Friday.

Several Israeli observers saw the announcement as an attempt by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “save face” with voters after the humiliation of the UN vote Thursday, and ahead of Israeli elections in January. In the days ahead of the vote, Israel had played down its importance, after previously warning of a harsh response if the Palestinians carried through with their UN plans.

“They threatened [the] collapse of [the] Oslo agreements, and serious acts that will destroy [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas,” Amir Radberg, who formerly worked at the Israeli embassy, told the Back Channel. “But [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton was here and begged him not to destroy PA. So this is the only thing he can do to show some action.”

“Revenge time,” Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote on Twitter. Since the Obama administration didn’t manage to persuade Europe to oppose the Palestinian UN measure, Benn explained the logic, Netanyahu is announcing settlement building in “E1, the most controversial settlement project.” But he added, Netanyahu may not actually do any building in the E1 zone for now, just prepare the approvals.

Netanyahu also announced Friday that he would travel to Germany, to express unhappiness with Germany’s decision to abstain on the UN vote, rather than vote against it. Continue reading