Mixed Reactions To U.S. Snooping

January 2, 2014
Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., meets with President Obama. (The Embassy of Israel to the United States)

Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., meets with President Obama.
(The Embassy of Israel to the United States)

When American-born Ron Dermer was appointed Israel’s top diplomat to the United States, it was widely seen as a move by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to place his most trusted confidante in the capital city most capable of influencing the Jewish state’s No. 1 existential threat. Accounts at the time claimed that Dermer, who grew up in South Florida, would serve as the prime minister’s eyes, ears and mouth on discussions and events dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran and its ongoing nuclear program.

Judging by Dermer’s first interview with an American newspaper since being received by President Barack Obama at the White House, the analysts appear to be right. Just one day after the revelation that Washington had spied on former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s email — made possible by the wholesale release of classified information by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — sparked Netanyahu’s ire, Mr. Dermer told the Miami Herald that “everyone should calm down about it” before turning the focus of the interview to Iran.

Dermer’s comment should not be viewed as the public rebuke of an envoy to his boss. In the carefully choreographed world of international relations, such a blatant misstep by the new ambassador is highly unlikely. Rather, Dermer’s statement can be read as reflective of Jerusalem’s willingness to avoid conflict on other issues in the quest to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from destabilizing the region. That reading makes sense.

The Israeli government’s singular focus right now is in recovering lost ground after the P5+1 nations’ potentially disastrous six-month interim agreement in which leaders in Iran are supposed to agree to limit uranium enrichment in return for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. As we have noted previously, that “agreement” is a bad deal on many levels. It appears that in order to keep attention focused on that issue — and to maximize its ability to influence change — Israel has chosen to overlook or minimize other concerns that aren’t perceived to be anywhere near as important to Israel’s security and survival.

We can easily imagine the outcry that would emanate from the Oval Office if Israel was shown to have engaged in espionage against the United States. The ongoing saga of Jonathan Pollard illustrates this reality very clearly. A similar reaction by Israel to the NSA-related disclosure would have made sense and might even have been used as leverage in the ongoing effort to free Pollard.

But that’s not what Israel’s new ambassador did. Instead, he showed Israel’s willingness to treat the NSA revelations as much ado about nothing — or, in Dermer’s words, “a blip in the relationship” between the two countries — and to focus instead on the threatening prospect of Tehran in control of a nuclear arsenal. According to Dermer, “Our concern is that this deal will not dismantle the program and that unwittingly and unintentionally it may make a diplomatic solution, a peaceful resolution to this problem that much harder.”

Netanyahu’s decision to go all in on Iran doesn’t leave much room for options if Washington proves unresponsive to the ambassador’s charms. Only time will tell if the gamble pays off.

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