Ambassador Tries to Bridge Gap With U.S., but on Israel’s Terms – NYTimes.com
WASHINGTON — Over an elegant dinner at his official residence Monday night, Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, tried to reassure a group of congressional Democrats that the dramatic public break between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was nothing more than a passing disagreement.
Every American president since Harry S. Truman has had differences with Israel, Mr. Dermer told the group, and they always work themselves out.
Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, who initiated and organized the dinner, said, “What people need to do right now is read a little bit of history, take a deep breath and relax, because every administration has had moments of tension with Israel, and it’s always forgotten.”
The gathering was part of a bid by Mr. Dermer, 43, the American-born former Republican operative who is so close to Mr. Netanyahu that he is often referred to as “Bibi’s brain,” to smooth tensions that have flared up in recent weeks between the United States and Israel. But an apology tour it is not. If anything, Mr. Dermer is intensifying his efforts to thwart the nuclear deal with Iran that Mr. Obama is working hard to close within days.
As he visits lawmakers and entertains them over dinner, sits for broadcast interviews and speaks with groups of journalists, Mr. Dermer has shown no trace of contrition for his role in the clash and little sign that he is rethinking his approach. Instead, he has defended his role in helping to arrange a speech to Congress by Mr. Netanyahu denouncing a nuclear deal with Iran. The speech this month was scheduled without Mr. Obama’s knowledge and prompted outrage at the White House.
“He does not want Israel and what’s going on in Israel to become a political football,” said Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat who attended Monday’s dinner. “Whatever has happened in the past or what has been interpreted was not designed to snub the president or the Democrats.”
The outreach comes as some administration officials and members of Congress have privately said Mr. Dermer’s standing has been so tarnished by recent events that he can no longer be effective in his post.
Richard LeBaron, the former American ambassador to Kuwait and a former deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, said the speech episode was a mistake that had rendered Mr. Dermer “damaged goods,” and “practically persona non grata among senior policy makers” in the United States government.
“It was poor judgment, and it was poor judgment affecting the relationship with the most important country that has a partnership with Israel,” said Mr. LeBaron, adding that as a former ambassador, he would expect to have been sent home for a similar infraction. “If he’s not gone within a month, it’s another indicator that Netanyahu is only out for political advantage and is not serious about repairing relations.”
But Mr. Dermer has told friends that he has no intention of leaving, saying he is as determined as ever to do his job and that quitting would do nothing to bridge the divide between the two countries.
Mr. Dermer did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.
But he has not been shy about making his views known. He is courting Republicans who believe that the Obama administration has been insufficiently supportive of Israel. He is also working to assuage the concerns of Democrats who are skeptical of an Iran deal but are reluctant to aggressively challenge it because they are distressed about Mr. Netanyahu’s tactics.
Above all, Mr. Dermer has been working to ensure that even as the United States and Israel feud, members of Congress continue to back generous military and intelligence support for Israel. He drove home the message Monday night over a dinner of fish with orange sauce and spring greens with pomegranate garnish, with his wife, Rhoda, seated at the table, and the footsteps of his five children echoing on the floor above.
“Everyone at that dinner recognized that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, that the friendship and support of America for Israel would be strong and continuous,” said Representative Gwen Graham, Democrat of Florida, a co-sponsor of legislation on developing an anti-tunneling defense system for Israel.
Still, Mr. Dermer made it clear that there would be a clash if a nuclear agreement with Iran was reached, and Mr. Israel said that “we’re going to have to manage this discourse.”
It falls largely to the Miami-born Mr. Dermer to do so, as the relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama sours. (Mr. Obama described it on Tuesday as “businesslike.”) Mr. Dermer appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday to argue that Mr. Netanyahu’s pre-election declaration that there would be no Palestinian state while he was in office did not, in fact, mean that he no longer supported a two-state solution.
But Mr. Obama has rejected the prime minister’s attempts to backpedal on that statement.
“This can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow, ‘Let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya,’” Mr. Obama said Tuesday. “This is a matter of figuring out how do we get through a real, knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region.”
Two days after Mr. Netanyahu’s victory, Mr. Dermer and Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican and a member of the Armed Services Committee, discussed suggestions that the United States might respond to Mr. Netanyahu’s actions by backing a United Nations Security Council resolution that would establish a Palestinian state.
“We talked about the issue of people trying to go to the U.N. to try to circumvent what should be a negotiation between two parties in terms of a two-state resolution,” Ms. Ayotte said in an interview. She called that effort, and a bid by the Palestinians to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, “totally improper.”
More immediately, the possibility of an Iran nuclear accord is weighing on Mr. Dermer. If a deal is struck, he is likely to lead an unusual lobbying effort to persuade lawmakers to defy Mr. Obama’s veto threats and move to squelch the agreement, either by voting for additional sanctions on Iran or by passing legislation that would allow Congress to review the deal and block the removal of existing sanctions.
The Senate is scheduled to consider the review measure in mid-April.
But in Israel, critics are not waiting to call for Mr. Dermer’s recall. Erel Margalit, a member of Parliament from the center-left Zionist Union, sent a letter to Mr. Netanyahu on Wednesday urging him to replace Mr. Dermer, who he said was considered “persona non grata” by the Obama administration.
“As such,” he told Army Radio, “he risks the state of Israel and the ongoing dialogue with the U.S.”