Ron Dermer sits in Israel’s five-member war cabinet and is a crucial liaison to the Biden administration, including U.S. officials he clashed with when he was ambassador to Washington.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named Ron Dermer as Israel’s ambassador to the United States in 2013, aides to President Barack Obama, viewing Mr. Dermer as a right-wing political operative rather than a diplomat, discussed whether the White House should refuse to accept his credentials. (They dropped the idea.)
Now, Mr. Dermer is one of five members of Mr. Netanyahu’s war cabinet and Israel’s chief conduit to the Biden administration. Unlike a decade ago, when Mr. Dermer was a recurring source of stress for the White House, American officials are at pains to say his close ties to Mr. Netanyahu, and his deep knowledge of the Washington political scene, make him a valuable go-between in this crisis.
But as the United States navigates what could be its most challenging period of relations with Israel in many years — balancing support for its war on Hamas with pressure to pause the bombing in the Gaza Strip for humanitarian relief — Mr. Dermer’s fractious history with the Obama White House looms in the background.
“Ron Dermer is the American handler,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Middle East peace negotiator. “Being a member of the war cabinet is critical to that. The question is whether he bumps into suspicion and mistrust among Biden’s people.”
So far, the answer appears to be no. American officials said Mr. Dermer, 52, who holds the title of minister of strategic affairs, has been a constructive presence in multiple meetings and phone calls — the ups and downs of their long relationship serving as a source of familiarity rather than rancor.
That comfort could be tested when the crisis moves from a military phase to diplomacy and politics, areas where Mr. Dermer cuts a wider swath. While in Washington, he clashed with Mr. Obama over the Iran nuclear agreement, which Israel fiercely opposed, and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Like Mr. Netanyahu, he is not a fan of the two-state solution, which President Biden recently said was central to the postwar future of Israel and the Palestinians.
Several of Mr. Biden’s top advisers, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, worked for Mr. Obama and have vivid memories of Israel’s lobbying campaign against the Iran deal.
Mr. Dermer brushed aside the battles of the past as “totally irrelevant” to his relationships with the administration today. “I don’t see it as a cloud hanging over anything,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday.
Iran, he noted, has receded as a bone of contention between the United States and Israel. Mr. Biden’s attempts to revive the nuclear talks have faded, and Hamas, which led the deadly Oct. 7 assault on Israeli civilians and soldiers, is backed by the Iranians. The president sent aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran and its Lebanese proxy group, Hezbollah, from entering the war against Israel.
“I don’t think the coordination and cooperation has ever been better, certainly not in a time of war,” Mr. Dermer said. “They understand where we are; we understand where they are.”
That was not the case during the Obama years. In 2014, during a previous Israeli military operation in Gaza, the State Department said it was “appalled” by what it called a “disgraceful” strike on a U.N. school. Israeli officials seethed at the language, which they felt was wholly unjustified.
White House aides also fumed that Mr. Dermer tilted consistently toward the Republicans, who are more favorable to Mr. Netanyahu and his positions. Mr. Dermer had much warmer relations with President Donald J. Trump, who withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, did not object to the Israeli settlements, proposed Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank and moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, as Israel had long requested.
Mr. Dermer, analysts said, has a sophisticated grasp of how the war is complicating domestic politics for Mr. Biden, with progressive Democrats and Muslim and Arab American voters balking at his embrace of Israel. Given Mr. Dermer’s close ties to Mr. Trump, who is running again for president, some question whether he would counsel Mr. Netanyahu to take Mr. Biden’s sensitivities into account.
“The administration has to look at Dermer as a double-edged sword,” Mr. Miller said. “On the one hand, they have a very high-level conduit to the prime minister. On the other hand, he has a demonstrated capacity of behaving in a way that doesn’t acknowledge reciprocity between the United States and Israel.”
At one level, Mr. Dermer’s membership in the war cabinet is surprising. Born and raised in Miami Beach, he moved to Israel after graduate school and did not serve in the Israeli military. Three of the cabinet members are retired generals, while Mr. Netanyahu served in a special forces unit as a young soldier.
But on another level, it is predictable, given Mr. Dermer’s longstanding ties to Mr. Netanyahu, who is widely known as Bibi. He has advised the prime minister since 2000, whether from Washington or Jerusalem, and is viewed as his alter ago — or, as the Jewish online magazine Tablet once memorably put it, “Bibi’s Brain.”
“He made sure Dermer was a part of” the war cabinet, said Anshel Pfeffer, who wrote a biography, “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” He added, “It’s telling that the only person he trusts on it is Ron Dermer, who has little or no military experience.”
As ambassador from 2013 to 2021, Mr. Dermer was an influential player in Washington, not only in diplomatic circles but also in political ones. He cultivated lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially Republicans, working with them to arrange a speech to a joint session of Congress by Mr. Netanyahu in 2015, during which he branded Mr. Obama’s proposed nuclear agreement a “very bad deal.”
Mr. Dermer later worked closely with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, on the Abraham Accords, which normalized Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. That deal prioritized Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors over a two-state settlement with the Palestinians.
“He’s the ultimate plenipotentiary guy,” said Michael B. Oren, who preceded Mr. Dermer as Israel’s ambassador, using the diplomatic term for an envoy invested with full authority to act on his government’s behalf abroad.
Jason D. Greenblatt, Mr. Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, said Mr. Dermer had a “tremendous grasp” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the dynamics in the region, and “should be viewed as a critical resource in the United States-Israel relationship, regardless of which political party is in power in the United States.”
Certainly, Mr. Dermer cut his teeth in party politics. His father, Jay, was a Democratic mayor of Miami Beach; his first job out of college at the University of Pennsylvania was working for Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who had taught him there. In a classroom debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Luntz recalled, he once told Mr. Dermer to take the Palestinian side.
“His side won, which horrified him, so he sprinted to the front of the room to assert that the only reason why he had been victorious is because he lied in all his claims,” Mr. Luntz said. “Israel was already more important to him than his own personal reputation.”
If Mr. Dermer’s allegiance is to Israel, his personal loyalty is to Mr. Netanyahu. Friends describe that loyalty as unshakable, even to the point that he once took the blame for a scandal that sideswiped Mr. Netanyahu. In 2018, Mr. Dermer said he failed to pass along warnings to the prime minister about sexual misconduct by his spokesman, David Keyes, who resigned after the allegations became public.
That loyalty could come into play as Mr. Netanyahu fights for his political future after the war in Gaza is over. Some question what advice Mr. Dermer will give his boss, and whether that advice — on issues like trying to resuscitate the two-state solution — will open new fissures between Israel and the United States.
Whatever the issue, Mr. Dermer argued that it should not become personal. “I always saw the disagreements as policy disagreements,” he said of the Obama years. “I never questioned the motives of anyone.”