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A conversation with Ron Dermer provides a blueprint for Israel’s strategy

Israel's new minister of strategic affairs spoke with JNS about a potential Israeli-Saudi peace deal and the part Washington can play.

Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer with MK Danny Danon before the swearing-in of the government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer with MK Danny Danon before the swearing-in of the government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer was sworn in Thursday as strategic affairs minister. Dermer, a confidante of Prime Minister Netanyahu and known as “Bibi’s Brain,” is set to resurrect a ministry closed down by the previous government.

While the vaguely-titled Strategic Affairs Ministry has been utilized to advance a host of issues since its creation in 2006, it has been used most extensively in recent years in the service of combatting the BDS movement.

Dermer, who was in the mix for the role of foreign minister, appears set to be given super-charged responsibilities in his new post, with Israeli media reporting that he will essentially serve as Netanyahu’s point man with Washington, focusing on advancing normalization with Saudi Arabia.

Dermer, who had a contentious tenure as ambassador during Barack Obama’s presidency, now will seek cooperation with the administration of President Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president.

In a discussion with JNS this past June, Dermer urged the Biden administration to confront Iran as a means to brokering an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal. Speaking at the Tikvah Fund’s annual Jewish Leadership Conference in New York City, Dermer expressed confidence in an expansion of ties between Israel and Gulf Arab states, “because of the fundamentals that are bringing us closer together. And those fundamentals are the huge instability that you have in the region, the fear and common danger of Iran, the common danger of Sunni radical forces like ISIS and other forces in the region. And also the understanding that the United States has withdrawn largely, certainly militarily, from the region.” 

He also cited Gulf states’ appreciation for Israel’s technological advancements, “so to the extent that you have Arab leaders who are concerned about the future of their countries, their national security, their national prosperity, then they should move towards Israel. What I’d like to see is the American administration help facilitate that.”

Worthy of a Nobel Prize

Claiming Biden would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize should a normalization deal come to fruition, Dermer was clear to JNS that he believed Washington’s posture towards Tehran was key.

“They have to get their policies right. And first and foremost, that means to confront Iran, and not appease Iran,” he said. “If you have an administration that is appeasing Iran, you are shrinking the space for the Arab leaders to move into an alliance with Israel. If they’re confronting Iran, you’re creating that space. And they have every reason to be confrontational with them, given what Iran has done and continues to do.”

Those comments came before full-on negotiations with Tehran over a revived nuclear accord petered out and before Russia began extensively using Iranian drones in its assault on Ukraine. 

Saudi Arabia remains a holdout on that front, with its officials pledging multiple times after the signing of the Abraham Accords that full normalization with Israel will not be possible before an Israeli-Palestinian political settlement.

Dermer remains optimistic, noting that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were among the countries saying the same thing—until they didn’t.

“A lot of public statements were made by a lot of people over a long period of time. You have to ask yourself, what is the interest of the Saudis? Do they have an interest in moving into an alliance with Israel? And the answer is yes,” he said. 

Dermer said the Biden administration could best facilitate a path to normalization by ceasing their efforts to appease the Palestinians.

“I actually think that the Palestinian issue complicates it by putting the Palestinian issue front and center. You’re making it harder for these Arabs leaders to move closer to Israel. And I’m not sure if a lot of that idea that we have to solve the Palestinian issue is actually not coming from Washington rather than Saudi Arabia,” he said. 

Citing the Biden administration’s praise for the Abraham Accords, Dermer said the administration “should ask themselves, how did that happen? Why did we succeed? And if they confront Iran, if they embrace Israel, if they give the Palestinians a path, like Trump did, but don’t chase after them, they actually will open up the space to get an Israeli-Saudi peace.”

Claiming an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement would bring about an effective end to the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, Dermer said the solution is “within our grasp. But you need a real change of Iran policy in Washington to be able to actualize that and to take advantage of the opportunity.”

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