Israel’s ambassador to the United States since last October, Ron Dermer, 43, is a close adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Born in Miami Beach to a politically active family, Dermer made aliya in 1996.
With degrees from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Oxford, he has served in senior economic and foreign relations roles in both Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., where Dermer lives with his family.
Q. What implications can we draw from recent tumultuous developments in Gaza?
A. The responsibility of the government of the State of Israel led by Prime Minister Netanyahu is to bring quiet to the citizens in the south of Israel and Tel Aviv who are facing rocket fire every day. We have a terror organization [Hamas] in Gaza, and no country in the world would tolerate the firing of rockets on their cities. Israel is surgically striking at the terrorists to keep civilians out of harm’s way.
Q. How do you characterize Hamas and how does this characterization determine Israel’s approach to dealing with that group?
A. We are facing an enemy committed to Israel’s destruction that deliberately targets civilians. We do everything possible to keep Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way, and every innocent life lost is a tragedy. We have to defend our population. What would the United States government do if two thirds of the country would come under rocket fire? That’s the situation we have in Israel. We don’t seek confrontation with Hamas but we have no choice but to defend our citizens. The end game is to restore quiet to the south of Israel. We want to go back to a period of quiet as we’ve had before.
Q. What do you think of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s statement in June in which he called the Holocaust the greatest crime against humanity?
A. Anytime you hear a leader in the Arab world condemning the Holocaust, it’s a good thing because what they have usually said in Arabic to their own people in this regard has been horrible. They have all politicized the Holocaust, including President Abbas. I found this statement bizarre because he made these remarks to an American rabbi [Marc Schneier] who was visiting him in Ramallah three days before he made a pact with Hamas, whose leaders deny the Holocaust and call for the extermination of Jews worldwide.
Q. Where do United States-Israel relations stand?
A. The relationship between the United States and Israel is very strong. It doesn’t mean we don’t have policy differences, even on very important issues. The most important challenge facing Israel is preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons capability—not merely to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons today but also to prevent them from having the capability to produce nuclear weapons in the future. And here we have a difference with Washington. Still, the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is…very deep and very strong. There have been a few…major policy differences. Yet, following each disagreement, the relationship grew stronger.
Q. Can you give an example?
A. Israel decided to launch Operation Defensive Shield after one of the most horrific waves of terrorism that Israel ever faced. There was one month alone, in March 2002, when hundreds of Israelis were killed, culminating in a Passover massacre in Netanya. Enormous pressure was put on Israel by the Bush administration [demanding] that Israel immediately withdraw its forces. But we did what we had to do to protect our citizens.
Q. Do you agree that longer range evaluations rather than headlines determine the character of the United States-Israel relationship?
A. The United States’s most important ally in the 20th century was Great Britain, and in the 21st century it is going to be the State of Israel. First, because the security threats facing the United States are primarily going to emanate from the Middle East for decades to come. Israel is the one solid, reliable, democratic ally [in the region]. We have unprecedented security cooperation, we share intelligence, we have joint missile defense programs. We work together on so many levels, and I think all this will make Israel a more and more valued ally.
Q. Is there a second reason?
A. Everybody talks about Israel as the start-up nation, and we are a prime source of technology for the future.
Where is innovation coming from? It’s happening in Silicon Valley in California, but the other place that it’s happening on an unbelievable scale is in Israel. As many as 40 out of the 50 leading technology companies in the world have R&D facilities in Israel, and for many of them it’s the only R&D facility they have outside the United States! When I think about what’s important to America in the future—security and prosperity—I think Israel will be a critical partner for both.
Q. Can Israel win the hasbara [public relations] war?
A. There’s no magic formula for success and there’s no end to the struggle. The lies that Israel has faced for the past 65 years can only be fought by speaking the truth…and doing it in a smart way. We need to make clear that we are the most endangered country on earth and that people should judge Israel by the standards that you judge all nations. No double or triple standards can be permitted.
I always ask myself the WWAD question—what would America do? What would America do if 20,000 rockets landed on a U.S. city? I don’t remember a single time where Israel responded with more force than would another country faced with similar aggression. Israel has been unbelievably compassionate when acting against serious threats to its security. We go to incredible lengths to ensure that we do not harm the innocent. Israeli soldiers have died so that innocent Palestinians could live.
Q. How do you want people to understand the proportionality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
A. Do you know how many people have been killed on both sides in the nearly century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Approximately 15,000. Undoubtedly that is a tragic loss of human life, but most people think that the number is 10 times or 100 times greater. Israel’s enemies demonize Israel, comparing us to Nazis, accusing us of all sorts of atrocities and libeling Israel with every false charge under the sun. This is outrageous and we must defend Israel against these lies. In Syria, over the past three years, at least 150,000 people have been killed.
Q. As someone who has gone through the process, who do you think should make aliya?
A. Aliya is a personal decision, and I have never met anyone who made aliya because an Israeli official told them to. I believe there will continue to be strong Jewish communities in America.
Still, Israel is the one place where the Jewish people exercise their collective rights as a people, where we enjoy the privilege of sovereignty, of being masters of our own fate. To attract Jews from all over the world, Israel must be a place that provides a standard of living and quality of life that’s second to none. We have an intense life in Israel, filled with energy and vitality like no other place in the world. We have problems to resolve, no doubt; we have real security challenges. And, ultimately, a strong Israel will secure peace with its neighbors.
I’m very optimistic about encouraging more aliya in the future. I think Birthright Israel has been a leading indicator—close to 400,000 people have visited Israel through Birthright, and this is already making a huge difference. We must open the eyes of a generation of young American Jews to Israel, to the real Israel, not necessarily what they see on TV or read in the newspapers, which is mostly a twisted and distorted version. They need to see the real Israel, where the promising future of the Jewish people is being built every day.