Open Zion

07.10.13

Reading Israel's New U.S. Ambassador

Judging by the headlines—“Israel names Romney backer to be ambassador to Washington,” “Israel's next U.S. envoy: Right-wing neo-con with close ties to Bush family”—Ron Dermer’s greatest sin is that he didn’t support Barack Obama’s reelection. That’s silly. Israeli prime ministers and American presidents have been trying to unseat each other since Dermer was in graduate school. In 1996, two Democratic political consultants served as liaisons between Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres and President Bill Clinton in their coordinated bid to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1999, Clinton dispatched three consultants—Robert Shrum, Stanley Greenberg and James Carville—to make sure that this time Bibi actually lost. (You can read about in Martin Indyk’s Innocent Abroad). By historical standards, Dermer’s chaperoning of Mitt Romney to Israel last summer on behalf of Netanyahu, his boss, is no great offense.

The problem isn’t that Dermer supported Romney. It’s why he supported Romney. Like Romney, and like Netanyahu himself, Dermer can barely contain his contempt for Palestinians, those who empathize with them and those who believe they deserve citizenship in a viable state. For years now, Bibi’s American defenders have claimed that he’s undergone an ideological transformation, that he’s no longer the man who in the 1990s regularly compared Palestinian control of the West Bank to Nazi control of Europe. It’s a bit dispiriting, therefore, that in the midst of what may prove America’s last real push for two states, Netanyahu has put the U.S. portfolio in the hands of someone who’s espoused all his old views.

Between 2001 and 2003, Dermer wrote roughly 125 columns for the Jerusalem Post. A fraction deal primarily with American foreign policy, almost every one of which would have fit snugly into the pages of The Weekly Standard. (“Many around the world look at the people manning the [Bush administration’s] Pentagon and see hawks blinded by ideology,” wrote Dermer on January 3, 2003. “I see owls with a vision that pierces through the darkness.”) Other columns deal with Israeli party politics and the results of Dermer’s polls. But the largest number concern the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in these, several themes emerge. (To read Dermer’s columns, you have to buy them from the Post.)

The first theme is Dermer’s disdain for Palestinians and his cartoonish view of their and Israel’s shared history. In a May 25, 2001, column, he bemoans the fact that on Nakba day, when Palestinians commemorate the flight of roughly 700,000 of their compatriots from their homes during Israel’s war of Independence, the Israeli “media was filled with tales of Palestinian anguish.” For Dermer, this “self-flagellating sympathy by the country’s Jewish population is a cause for serious concern.” Why? Because Israel bears no responsibility for the refugees’ plight since “nearly all of [them left of] their own free will.” Unfortunately for Dermer, few serious historians share his view. (By way of comparison, watch this account by Benny Morris, whose political views are now not that different from Dermer’s, but who has immersed himself in the historical archives.) Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the people who agrees with Dermer is Netanyahu himself, who in his 2000 book, A Durable Peace, declared that “most of the Arab refugees left voluntarily.”

Dermer revises history yet again on January 25, 2002. “How can it be,” he asks, “that Palestinian Arabs, long exposed to Israeli democracy, have never mounted a non-violent campaign to achieve their goals?” Put aside the issue of how much democratic exposure Palestinians get as non-voting, non-citizens living under military law in the West Bank. The problem with Dermer’s question, as Yousef Munayyer has documented, is that Palestinians have protested nonviolently since the early twentieth century. (As a Zionist, I don’t agree with the goals of many of those protests, but they’ve been conducted via boycotts and strikes, not only armed attacks.) But having stipulated that Palestinians don’t protest nonviolently, Dermer goes on to speculate that the reason is “a cultural tendency towards belligerency” that is “deeply imbedded in the culture of the Arab world and its foremost religion.” (Again, he’s on message with his boss, who in A Durable Peace says “violence is ubiquitous in the political life of all the Arab countries.”)

A defender of Dermer’s might object that he can’t be truly hostile to Palestinians or Arabs because, like Natan Sharansky, with whom he authored The Case for Democracy, he believes they yearn for freedom. But there’s a tension between this democratic optimism and Dermer’s disdain for Palestinian, Arab and Islamic cultures. It comes through clearly in a column he penned after 9/11 (“The View from Ground Zero”) in which he writes with unabashed enthusiasm that while “George Bush has called the enemy terrorism, bending over backwards not to besmirch Islam… [t]he American people are not convinced. They see Islamic fundamentalism, if not Islam itself, as the enemy. The prevailing mood I detected was best expressed not by the president’s call for Americans to pray in their ‘churches, synagogues and mosques’ but by the refusal of commuters on a Minneapolis flight to fly until three Arab passengers were removed from the plane.”

If Dermer can be contemptuous of Palestinians, and Arabs and Muslims more generally, he’s equally scornful of those Israelis who identify with their plight. In a July 20, 2001, column, he compares Shimon Peres to Neville Chamberlain for helping broker the Oslo Accords, thus echoing an analogy made repeatedly by Netanyahu in the 1990s. On January 11, 2002, Dermer divides Israeli doves into two categories—“census takers” and “self-haters”—and then declares that a “recent article by David Grossman, a renowned Israeli author, placed him squarely with the self-haters.” (Someone snuck a free copy of this one online.)

It takes a certain moxie—when you’re barely thirty years old and recently arrived from the U.S.—to compare one of Israel’s most venerable statesman to history’s most notorious appeaser and to suggest that Israel’s most famous novelist is motivated by self-loathing. And as usual, Dermer levels his accusations with a torrent of intellectual self-regard and little actual evidence. Grossman, he declares, “displayed a level of historical ignorance not uncommon among Israel’s literary elite” and yet offers not a single fact to prove Grossman wrong. Anyone who has read Bibi will recognize the style. It would be nice, Netanyahu lectured the U.N. in 2011, to have a “press whose sense of history extends beyond breakfast.” (In a May 23, 2003, column, Dermer uses the exact same phrase.) But like Dermer, Netanyahu is not quite the historian he imagines himself to be. In a review of Netanyahu’s heftiest book, initially called A Place Among the Nations and later reissued as A Durable Peace, the University of Virginia’s William Quandt noted in Foreign Affairs that “the historical sections of the book” are “not well grounded in fact.”

Finally, Dermer’s columns heap abuse on every effort to birth a Palestinian state. The Oslo Accords are a “folly” (Jan 24, 2003) and a “ruse” (May 3, 2002). Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David is a “Herculean effort at appeasement.” The Bush administration’s Road Map for Peace is a “blatant reward for terror” (May 30, 2003). Dermer’s hostility to Palestinian statehood is relentless. “A Palestinian state will give the Palestinians powers that will endanger the very existence of the Jewish state,” he writes on May 16, 2002. But unfortunately, he worries on March 2 of that year, “Israelis may be foolish enough today to agree to one Palestinian state.”

These columns were written a decade ago, and it’s always possible that Dermer, like Netanyahu, has changed his mind. In June 2009, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu endorsed Palestinian statehood after a career spent opposing it. A month before that, after being quoted as saying, “This idea of two states for two peoples is a stupid and childish solution to a very complex problem,” Dermer clarified that “when I say ‘childish’ I mean… the fixation with that idea rather than focusing on the fundamental issues. I don’t think that two-states for two peoples is a childish approach.”

The problem with believing that Dermer and his boss have undergone a sincere conversion—as opposed to a rhetorical one designed to relieve international pressure—is that although they now endorse something called a “Palestinian state,” they’ve rejected the parameters for creating one that have governed every serious negotiation in the past. Netanyahu and Dermer took office in the wake of talks between Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that both men have subsequently said could have produced a deal within months. According to published reports, Olmert and Abbas were both within the parameters laid out by Bill Clinton in December 2000: a Palestinian state in 94 percent or more of the West Bank (with land swaps from within Israel), a Palestinian capital in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, international but not Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley, some return of Palestinian refugees but not enough to shift Israel’s demographic balance (Olmert reportedly suggested 5,000; Abbas countered with 150,000).

Netanyahu and Dermer refused to pick up where Olmert left off. Indeed, in a clear swipe at the recently departed prime minister, Dermer told AIPAC soon after Netanyahu took office, “The days of continuing down the same path of weakness and capitulation and concessions, hoping, hoping that somehow the Palestinians would respond in kind are over.” Even in the Bar-Ilan speech where he endorsed Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu laid out demands far beyond Olmert’s. Unlike Olmert, he made the demand that Palestinians not merely recognize Israel, but recognize it as a “Jewish state,” a core requirement for any deal. He ruled out dividing Jerusalem, something Olmert had already agreed to. And he said Israel needs “defensible borders,” a buzzword he’d used in the past to insist that Israel retain as much as half of the West Bank, and which several key former and current Netanyahu aides have argued is incompatible with the kind of Palestinian state envisioned by Clinton and Olmert. Indeed, after Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech, his own father told reporters, “He doesn’t support [a Palestinian state]. He supports the sorts of conditions that they [the Palestinians] will never accept.”

Since then, Netanyahu and Dermer have publicly rejected Barack Obama’s 2011 proposal that negotiations be based upon the 1967 lines plus land swaps, the basic parameters laid out by Clinton, and accepted by Olmert. Between 2009 and 2013, they oversaw a government that doubled funding for settlements. During his reelection bid this January, Netanyahu never made the two-state solution the official position of his Likud-Beiteinu ticket. And once reelected, he formed a coalition in which a majority of cabinet ministers, according to some estimates, oppose a Palestinian state.

This doesn’t mean Abbas bears no responsibility for the failure to launch serious negotiations over the last four years. It’s entirely possible that he’s now so weak and lethargic that he doesn’t want to put himself in a position where he’d have to make difficult compromises. But by remaining outside the basic two-state framework established more than a decade ago, Netanyahu and Dermer have never put him to the test.

In the wake of Dermer’s appointment, media speculation has focused on whether the Obama administration is annoyed by the pick. I understand the temptation. During the reporting for my book, one senior White House official told me that Dermer could “stand some self-reflection.” Another, on background, was even more salty. (Though, to be fair, another former administration type called him capable and effective.) But whether Team Obama likes Dermer’s personality and his partisan leanings is a distraction. The real question is whether they’re bothered by the fact that, as the window for a two-state solution closes, Netanyahu is sending to Washington a man with a history of trying to seal it shut. If that doesn’t bother the Obama White House, it means they’re probably already given up.