Top Netanyahu aide could continue strategic shift in Israel’s relations with U.S.

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Click photo to download. Caption: Ron Dermer, the senior advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks about how to defend Israel online at a convention for Jewish bloggers held in Jerusalem on Sept. 13, 2009. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Rumors recently began to circulate that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may appoint his senior advisor, Ron Dermer, as Israel’s next ambassador to the United States.

Dermer’s appointment is currently being denied by Israel’s embassy, and the Prime Minister’s office has refused comment, but insiders suggest that the appointment—while not definite—is a serious possibility. 

If Dermer is eventually appointed, he would be Israel’s second consecutive American-born ambassador to the U.S. Prior to becoming an Israeli citizen, Dermer was born in Miami, and both his father and brother served as mayors of Miami Beach.

Michael Oren, the current ambassador and the first in Israeli history who was born in the U.S., is set to conclude his four-year stint in the spring, shortly after Israel’s Jan. 22 national elections. Oren is generally considered to be a well-respected ambassador who has had to navigate an often-bumpy relationship between Israel and the U.S., and he has represented the State of Israel both on American television and in top American newspapers’ op-ed pages.

The selection of another native English speaker to one of Israel’s top diplomatic posts would indicate a continued strategic shift in the way the country conducts relations with the U.S. government, the broader Jewish community, and the general public. To that end, Lenny Ben-David—who served as deputy chief of mission at Israel’s embassy in Washington, DC, from 1997 to 2000—said the Jewish state’s criteria for selecting an ambassador has changed over the years.

“For years, the ambassador was picked for his or her diplomatic skills, or even as political payoff,” Ben-David told JNS.org.

“Today, it is important for the ambassador to look good on television, and to navigate the political waters of Washington, DC,” he added. 

Prior to his appointment as Netanyahu’s top advisor, Dermer served as Israel’s economic attaché in Washington—a post for which he had to forfeit his American citizenship. 

Many political commentators have noted that rumors of Dermer’s new appointment may be a trial balloon, to test the viability of such an appointment both within Israeli and American political circles.

“In addition to their qualifications, several different considerations must be taken into account before an ambassador is selected,” Mitchell Barak, political pollster and director of Keevoon Research, told JNS.org.

“Officially, the ambassador must report to the foreign minister,” Barak said. “If Netanyahu’s Likud party holds the Foreign Ministry following the next election, a Dermer appointment may be likely. However, if another party holds the Foreign Ministry portfolio in the next coalition government, appointing someone so close to the prime minister may cause political friction.”

“If Tzipi Livni (HaTnuah) or Shelly Yachimovich (Labor), for example, becomes Israel’s next foreign minister, it is extremely unlikely that Dermer will serve as ambassador, even though he is an extremely capable and qualified candidate,” he added.

For many Israelis, managing the relationship with the U.S. is considered one of Israel’s paramount foreign responsibilities, and the quality of the relationship is often a tool for measuring the effectiveness of the prime minister. 

“It can be very useful to have someone who is a confidante to the prime minister as ambassador to the United States,” Ben-David said.

Such a distinction could increase the potential effectiveness of an ambassador in strengthening Israel’s embassy as the primary channel for bilateral communication.  Senior officials in the U.S. would understand that they are speaking to someone with an intimate grasp of the prime minister’s thinking and policymaking. 

Netanyahu, who is often known for his eloquent, yet hard-hitting speeches—including those on Capitol Hill, in the Oval Office, and at the United Nations—has been delivering addresses written by Dermer.

As senior advisor to the prime minister for four years, Dermer is widely considered to be the chief strategist behind Israel’s bilateral relations with the U.S.

With the strategic threats facing Israel, including Iran’s nuclear program, a Muslim Brotherhood-run Egyptian government, civil war in Syria, and internal clashes between Fatah and Hamas, maintaining a strong relationship with the U.S.—Israel’s primary military supplier and diplomatic supporter—could prove critical.

As tension between Netanyahu and Obama was palpable during the two leaders’ first terms, Netanyahu certainly doesn’t want the situation to get worse. With Dermer in Washington, it is unlikely that there would be any miscommunications—even if the two administrations are not always in agreement. 

Navigating the relationship may be the toughest diplomatic challenge of the next term, and appointing Dermer may be an indication of how seriously Netanyahu takes the challenge. After all, the prime minister would be losing his senior advisor to fill this post. 

And while Dermer may or may not get the appointment, insiders believe he is certainly worthy of consideration.

“Ambassador Oren is extremely eloquent, and Dermer is equally eloquent,” Ben-David said. “Rumors of his possible appointment already started floating over a year ago.”

Posted on January 7, 2013 and filed under Israel, News, U.S..