by Marsha B. Cohen
In a break with diplomatic tradition Ron Dermer, an American-born former Republican activist, is scheduled to attend the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Spring Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas next week and share the speaking platform with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, Ohio Governor Jon Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
The keynote speaker at the Meeting’s Gala Dinner will be former Vice President Dick Cheney and the meeting will be held at the Sheldon Adelson-owned Venetian Resort and Hotel March 28-30. Adelson is a long time supporter of the RJC and has been one of its major sources of funding.
The audience will be limited to members of the RJC’s National Leadership, an elite status requiring a minimum contribution of $1000 to the organization. Also attending will be college students “who have shown strong support for both Republican and Jewish causes on and off campus” and were awarded grants covering the conference fee and meals for their commitment to serving the RJC’s “active student ambassadors” on their campuses.
It is highly unusual for foreign ambassadors to directly involve themselves in the politics of the country in which they are serving, particularly by actively aligning themselves with an opposition party.
“The issue can be tricky,” explained one former US career diplomat to LobeLog. “As a sitting ambassador I often met with opposition figures to show that my country values pluralism and to hear different points of view.”
“I would not be a speaker at a political rally of any side, however,” said the former diplomat. “Doing so is an inappropriate level of involvement in a sovereign country’s domestic politics by a foreign representative.”
A retired senior officer in the US Foreign Service agreed that an embassy’s responsibility includes finding out what opposition leaders in their host country are saying. “In my day it was always an embassy’s job to have contacts across the political spectrum, except where a group was repugnant (terrorists) or put off-limits by an autocratic regime.”
However, the former senior officer emphasized that “Exchanging views with a government’s opponents would normally be carried out by ‘working level’ officers.”
The former senior officer suggested that the best solution for an embassy to glean information about opposition viewpoints was by lower-level embassy officials attending meetings at which they do not speak. “At first blush, the Israeli ambassador’s being a speaker at such an event would seem to cross the line.”
Dermer apparently committed himself to speaking at the exclusively partisan event within days of his taking up the post of Israel’s top diplomat in the US early last February, when he replaced another American expatriate, Michael Oren.
The same RJC e-newsletter sent out on Feb. 6 that welcomed Dermer as Israel’s new ambassador also announced that Cheney, Bolton and Walker were confirmed as guest speakers at the RJC Leadership Meeting. An announcement adding Kasich was e-mailed on Feb. 10, and another highlighting Christie’s participation and quietly adding Dermer’s name to the lineup was sent out on Feb. 14.
Asked to comment on the possible consequences of Dermer sharing a partisan platform with exclusively Republican speakers, the retired American foreign service officer explained, “For a foreign ambassador to appear publicly before a Republican group opposed to a Democratic administration could easily be seen as grounds for having him recalled by his government.”
“At a minimum, his utility in Washington would be affected as senior Democrats might decline to meet with him. His sending government could then decide to reassign him in favor of a neutral official,” said the former officer.
Known as “Bibi’s brain,” Dermer won’t likely face repercussions from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu any time soon.
Leading US Jewish Democrats also appear unconcered about the upcoming event. Both the National Jewish Democratic Council and the office of the head of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D-FL) declined to comment on Dermer’s apparent upcoming breach of diplomatic protocol.
But Dermer has another problem now: the diplomats of the Israeli Foreign Ministry are on strike. Netanyahu has accordingly canceled his historic upcoming visit to South America, and Pope Francis may have to postpone his visit to the Holy Land as well.
According to Barak Ravid of Haaretz, Foreign Ministry officials, including diplomats abroad, are refusing to process passports and visas for Israelis abroad, arrange travel for government officials, transmit diplomatic cables to intelligence and defense agencies, promote economic and trade agreements, or engage in public diplomacy.
Among the consequences of the strike thus far is that “Israeli missions abroad refused to disseminate any of the government’s talking points about the Iranian arms ship that Israel captured earlier this month, or to brief politicians and journalists in their host countries about it.” Israeli diplomats are also refusing to attend meetings of UN institutions in New York, Vienna and Geneva.
Nevertheless, according to the RJC’s office in Washington, DC, Dermer is still planning to attend their Leadership Meeting. “He’ll be there,” responded a surprised staff member. “He’s here in Washington, and we haven’t heard anything about him not coming.”
There are two possibilities. Dermer may have not yet advised the RJC that he won’t be able to make it to Las Vegas if the Israeli diplomats’ strike hasn’t ended by next week because he’s hoping it will be over by then.
The other possibility is that Dermer plans to attend the RJC Leadership Meeting strike or no strike. He could justify his attendance with the claim that he is attending as a private person, rather than in his official capacity as a diplomat. Nonetheless, it’s almost certain that he will continue to be identified in RJC publicity and on the meeting’s program as “Ambassador Ron Dermer,” and will be introduced as Israel’s ambassador to the US.
Photo: Speaker John Boehner meets with Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in his office at the US Capitol January 28, 2014. Credit: Heather Reed