As Benjamin Netanyahu’s man in Washington, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer has succeeded in identifying himself more closely with his prime minister than any other envoy in the nation’s history. That may be why the criticism that has hit Netanyahu for his planned address to Congress in March has spilled over to Dermer. As the top Israeli in Washington, he has been castigated for arranging Netanyahu’s appearance with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) without the courtesy of giving more than a few hours’ notice to the White House, congressional Democrats or American Jews, all of whom have a stake in U.S.-Israel relations.
If strengthening U.S.-Israel relations was a goal here, along with Netanyahu’s “sacred duty” of taking his warning on Iran “straight to the American people,” the attempt backfired. Not only have relations between Washington and Jerusalem reached a new low, but the episode has turned broad-based support of Israel into a partisan issue and has turned attention away from the West’s negotiations with Iran on limiting its nuclear program.
We recognize that the attacks on Dermer and Netanyahu are not entirely fair. The White House has criticized the temerity of a foreign head of state for injecting himself into a domestic legislative issue. But Netanyahu was invited by Boehner. Who can really blame the prime minister — who has addressed both houses of Congress on several other occasions — for accepting such an open door to speak about Iran, whose nuclear aspirations are very much an existential threat? Even more, there’s practically no difference between Netanyahu coming to Washington and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent personal lobbying on behalf of Obama: In the lead-up to the State of the Union addressed, Cameron called legislators and urged them to defeat any Iran sanctions bill.
Nonetheless, because a nuclear-armed Iran is such a pressing danger and because the invitation is centered on a policy disagreement with the president of the United States, Dermer and Netanyahu should have known better and should have been more careful in responding to Boehner’s invitation. And now, by insisting that he will appear before Congress — even after the political uproar that continues to boil over — Netanyahu has trapped himself in what looks like a pre-election photo op when he could make exactly the same speech at the AIPAC policy conference just blocks from Capitol Hill the same week.
As things stand now, Netanyahu is in a no-win situation. If he moves forward with the speech, he risks coming into a poisoned atmosphere and further insulting the president. If he pulls back, he risks looking weak.
Which brings us back to Dermer. He needs to do what he can to defuse this confrontation and repair Israel’s image in the eyes of its allies in the United States.