Exit Michael Oren, Enter Ron Dermer

July 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

On Tuesday, Bibi Netanyahu announced that his top aide, Ron Dermer, will be replacing Michael Oren as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. in the fall. Oren has to my mind been an excellent ambassador, and I’m not just saying that because he is a friend and former professor. He has served during a uniquely difficult time for Israel, and Dermer has a tough job ahead of him. Despite Dermer’s reputation for being on the far right of Israeli politics, I actually think he may be able to shunt aside some of the distrust he has built up in the administration and be successful. I wrote about Oren’s legacy and Dermer’s prospect for Foreign Policy yesterday:

There’s a new big macher in town. On Tuesday, July 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially named Ron Dermer to be his next ambassador to Washington, formally bringing current ambassador Michael Oren’s four-year tenure to an end in the fall. In replacing Oren with Dermer (full disclosure: Oren was my professor in graduate school at Harvard University, and we have maintained a good relationship), Netanyahu is replacing one American-turned-Israeli with another, but that is where the similarities end. Dermer will have big shoes to fill, as Oren has done an admirable job as Israel’s ambassador to the United States during a time that has been fraught with potential peril for the special relationship between the two countries. Although Dermer will have some advantages that Oren did not, he also has a history of his own that must be overcome.

While Israeli envoys have traditionally reported to the Foreign Ministry, Oren has been in the unique position of bypassing traditional channels and reporting directly to Netanyahu. This is because Oren didn’t come from within the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and so wasn’t in any way beholden to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But it’s also an indication of how far the Foreign Ministry has fallen out of favor under Netanyahu’s purview. Netanyahu has sidelined the Foreign Ministry and has run Israeli foreign policy directly out of his office, using personal aides for important diplomatic tasks. While some analysts, such as Aaron David Miller, claim that Oren is outside Netanyahu’s inner circle and thus has had a diminished role, there is no doubt that the outgoing ambassador has played a crucial role in serving as a critical communicator between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.

One need only look at the results of the past four years to see how well Oren has comported himself in his position. During Obama’s and Netanyahu’s respective first terms, all manner of analysts were predicting an Israeli strike on Iran and a policy of unfettered settlement building, both of which were going to lead to terrible clashes between Washington and Jerusalem. Indeed, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed during a trip to Israel by a surprise announcement of new building in East Jerusalem, the immediate fallout was swift. Yet the fears over Iran and exploding settlement growth were never realized, and the actual working relationship between the United States and Israel is as strong as it has ever been in terms of security cooperation and coordination. One has to assume that Oren has played a key role in all this by communicating to the Israeli government the mood in Washington and the dangers inherent in moving unilaterally against Iran or sabotaging the peace process.

One of the Israeli ambassador’s primary tasks is making sure that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is as smooth as possible, and not only is the institutional relationship humming along, but the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has immeasurably improved over time. During Obama’s first term, low points included Netanyahu publicly lecturing the U.S. president while the cameras were rolling during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in May 2011, and Obama later returning the favor by denigrating Netanyahu over an open microphone while talking privately to then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In contrast, during Obama’s trip to Israel this past March, the two men joked with each other, smiled, and seemed far more comfortable than they ever had before. Although the credit for this cannot be laid entirely at Oren’s feet, one should not overlook his part in it either after four years of his public insistence that Obama and Netanyahu have a solid working relationship.

To read the rest of my thoughts on Oren, including the biggest way in which he has been successful, and why I think that Dermer has disadvantages that must be overcome but also advantages that Oren did not have, please click over to Foreign Policy.

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The Israeli Government Vs. Its Diplomats

January 2, 2013 § 2 Comments

During the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s ambassadors conference on Monday, the assembled diplomats were given a tongue lashing by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, who took exception to a question posed by UN Ambassador Ron Prosor about the decision to start the zoning and planning process for E1. After Prosor asked why the government decided to make the E1 announcement and received a round of applause from the room, Amidror responded by saying that American and British diplomats would never applaud someone who criticized the policy of their own government, and that ambassadors are merely clerks tasked with carrying out rather than questioning the government’s directives. He further suggested that any diplomats unhappy with this should either go into politics themselves or resign.

As the various anonymous quotes in the papers make abundantly clear, Israel’s ambassadors were not happy with Amidror’s reaction to Prosor’s question. They feel as if they are being thrown into the spotlight to defend unpopular policies without much assistance or explanation, and Prosor’s question was aimed at getting an idea as to why the government decided to announce building in E1 at that particular time. Divulging plans for E1 the very day of the UN Palestinian statehood vote put Israeli diplomats in a very hard position, as they now not only had to defend a policy that the U.S. and the EU had previously communicated was a redline not to be crossed, but had to do so in the context of it being viewed as a retaliatory move meant to punish the Palestinians, which made them look petulant. As someone who used to train U.S. Foreign Service Officers on how to deal with tough questioning, I know firsthand that diplomats posted overseas have about the toughest job in the world. They don’t get to shut down when they leave the office at the end of the day like most people do, since literally everywhere they go – bars, restaurants, parties, small gatherings with friends – they are representing their country, and they need to watch everything they say since a stray off-message comment might be overheard and repeated as the official position of their government. Israeli ambassadors and chiefs of mission have to deal with this problem in an even more acute way, because they are the top diplomats in their host countries representing a state that is often a target of extra scrutiny. They have a difficult enough job as it is explaining and defending Israeli policies without the added burden of dealing with surprise building announcements and not getting enough direction from the Foreign Ministry on the rationale behind certain decisions.

The additional problem in this case is that despite the Foreign Ministry’s recommendation that the government not take any actions that would be explicitly viewed as retaliation for the Palestinian statehood gambit at the UN, the government ignored this advice and did exactly that. The ambassadors’ protest on Monday reflects frustration on the part of the professionals that the politicians are doing things that are not necessarily well thought out, and that are being driven by heated emotions rather than cool analysis. It is the hallmark of a government thinking about the politics of a situation rather than the policy implications, and understandably Israeli diplomats are frustrated. I do not mean to suggest that Israel’s diplomatic corps is universally leftist and that they uniformly disagree with settlement expansion or building in E1, since I am sure that is not the case. Not having a coherent strategy that is communicated to them beforehand makes their lives a lot more difficult irrespective of whether or not they support the underlying decision, and that is what Prosor’s question and his colleagues’ applause.

There are two things that should be taken away from this incident. First, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Netanyahu government to shove aside any and all criticism of Israeli actions as motivated by hatred for Israel or closet anti-Semitism. A lot of what Israel deals with definitely does fall into this category, but not all, and when you have a senior official upbraiding Israel’s ambassadors for criticizing the government and insisting that dissent will not be tolerated, you know that there is a much larger problem at hand. The official government line has been that Israel’s image problem stems from a failure of public relations rather than a failure of policy, but this is simply not credible when it comes to complaints from your own diplomats. It is one thing to dismiss criticism from Europe or the UN as biased, but quite another to dismiss complaints from the people manning your own diplomatic front lines. This should be a serious wakeup call to Netanyahu that things are off the rails, and that policy is going to have to be recalibrated.

Second, Amidror’s response to Prosor was a real overreaction, and all the more surprising given that he was not speaking to a group that could in any way be deemed a hostile audience. One of two things, and possibly both simultaneously, are going on here. Either the government is actually feeling a lot more pressure on settlements and E1 than it lets on, which would explain Amidror’s hair triggered short temper, or the government is feeling a lot more pressure over its declining pre-election poll numbers than it lets on and was willing to use a clash with its ambassadors to score political points. My hunch is that it is the former, and I certainly hope that it is the former, but one never knows with Israeli politics. If Netanyahu and his advisers are indeed feeling squeezed on the E1 issue, hopefully it will forestall greater settlement activity and push the government back to a serious negotiating posture once the elections are over. Either way, berating your top diplomat when he asks for some clarification on a policy that he is tasked with publicly and privately defending is probably not a great way to inspire confidence in your policy planning and implementation process.

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