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Netanyahu aide Ron Dermer brings American sensibilities to Israeli politics

Ron Dermer, the senior advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a convention for Jewish bloggers in Jerusalem, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90/JTA)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Like many Israeli politicians, Ron Dermer is an unapologetic defender of Israel’s actions, even if it might mean being undiplomatic.

But like a seasoned diplomat, Dermer — senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — knows his way through Washington’s backchannels and has cultivated relationships with senior U.S. policymakers.

Most important, say those who know him, he has Netanyahu’s ear.

“Netanyahu likes him, respects him and listens to him,” said Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security adviser until 2011. “I often asked for his advice. In many ways he was a guy to listen to. When it came to knowledge and being cultured and erudite and intellectually inclined, that’s him.”

Dermer’s name was floated last week as a possible successor to Michael Oren as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Though the report about Dermer — published last Friday in Israel’s Makor Rishon newspaper — was denied almost immediately, it could be a trial balloon. Oren is set to return to Israel in the spring, providing an opening at the most important overseas post in the Israeli diplomatic corps.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the report; the Israeli Embassy in Washington called it baseless.

If Dermer were to go to Washington, he would be the second U.S.-born Israeli ambassador to the United States in a row.

Born and raised in Florida and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Dermer, 41, started his career working with Republican strategist Frank Luntz on the Republicans’ 1994 midterm election victory. From there he went to earn a master’s degree at Oxford, intermittently traveling to Israel to work on the Knesset campaign of Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who then headed the Russian-immigrant Yisrael B’Aliyah party.

Dermer immigrated to Israel in 1997 and stayed with Sharansky for his 1999 Knesset drive. He continued consulting after the election, and in 2001 began writing a weekly Jerusalem Post column, The Numbers Game, which became an outlet for his hard-line views. In 2003, for example, Dermer wrote that in agreeing to the U.S.-sponsored “road map” plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel had given up its sovereignty.

“It is one thing for Israel to take into consideration what America says,” he wrote. “In fact, Israel’s national interest demands that it do so. But it is quite another to cede to a third party, no matter how friendly, the right to determine Israel’s future.”

In 2005, with Netanyahu serving as Israel’s finance minister, Dermer returned to Washington to become the economic charge d’affaires at Israel’s embassy. He had to surrender his U.S. citizenship to take the job, and in a column in the New York Sun wrote that he “left America because I wanted to help another nation I love defend the freedoms that Americans have long taken for granted.”

That conviction came through in “The Case for Democracy,” a book Dermer co-authored with Sharansky in 2004 on the importance of democracy for newly independent nations. The book reportedly was a major influence on President George W. Bush’s worldview.

Dermer returned to Israel in 2008 to work on Netanyahu’s successful campaign for prime minister and has stayed with Netanyahu. Colleagues say he brings American sensibilities — and an acute understanding of Washington politics — to the job.

“He understands how Americans view Israelis and how Israelis view Americans,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli pollster who met Dermer as an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “He knows how to work [in Washington] and has personal relations.”

In his current role, Dermer has been a pugnacious public defender of Netanyahu, the prime minister’s speechwriter, and a liaison between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House.

“He’s American born, he brings with him a professional understanding of America and he’s an admirable exponent of America,” Arad said. “He has been working with the key Americans with this administration.”

Dermer has never been shy about promoting his political viewpoint. In a 2009 interview he gave to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, Dermer criticized as “childish” the political “focus given to the matter of two states for two peoples instead of dealing with core issues.”

In a 2011 open letter to The New York Times, Dermer slammed the newspaper and its Op-Ed page.

Times columnists “consistently distort the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace,” Dermer wrote in the letter, which was published in The Jerusalem Post. “It would seem as if the surest way to get an op-ed published in the New York Times these days, no matter how obscure the writer or the viewpoint, is to attack Israel.”

“He calls it like he sees it,” Barak said. “It’s widely known that he’s heavily identified with the Republican Party and conservative politics.”

The right-wing orientation could hinder Dermer if he is tapped for the ambassador job, according to Bar-Ilan University professor Eytan Gilboa. Gilboa says U.S.-Israel ties have deteriorated during Netanyahu’s term, citing as an example what some saw as Netanyahu’s tacit support of Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the presidential campaign.

“People say that Netanyahu understands American politics, but judging from [his staff’s] behavior, they don’t understand American politics,” Gilboa said. “When you have a president like Obama with an opposite worldview, you cooperate as much as possible, but it seems like Netanyahu is fighting.”

Gilboa said Dermer’s philosophy in “The Case for Democracy” was “good for Bush, but it doesn’t work with Obama.”

But Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser on the Middle East to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, said that as ambassador, Dermer’s personal views wouldn’t have much effect on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Miller called Dermer a “tough, pragmatic hawk.”

“I don’t attach much importance to mid- or senior-level officials in terms of altering the nature of the relationship between leaders,” said Miller, now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. “They can facilitate improvements or make matters worse through their own missteps, but leaders have an ultimate responsibility for how the relationship evolves.”