The Conference Circuit

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer blasts the New York Times at the AJC

State Department photo by Michael Gross

Ron Dermer in May 2019 (Michael Gross/State Department)

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer pointedly criticized the New York Times’ coverage of Israel in remarks at the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) annual conference in Washington D.C., on Monday. Dermer described an effort to “demonize” Israel. Calling the tone and substance of the reporting a “serious problem,” Dermer recalled the recent publication of an antisemitic cartoon in the Times’ international edition.

He previously labeled the paper “a cesspool of hostility” over the incident.  

On the international scene, the ambassador said that the global community needs to “shift” its understanding of sovereignty when thinking about a future Palestinian state, emphasizing that Israel won’t accept a militarized Palestinian territory on the West Bank.

Speaking comfortably in a room filled to capacity with over 400 attendees, Dermer joked with the crowd, took informal polls, while reinforcing Israel’s positions on world affairs and its relationship with the U.S.

The ambassador criticized the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominates the conversation with progressive and Democratic members of Congress to the detriment of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and added that any Democratic presidential candidates should “reconsider” their commitment to re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran.

On the Iran Deal and the 2020 Democratic candidates:

Harris: In turning to the zeitgeist, several democratic presidential candidates are on record saying that if elected they would return the United States to the JCPOA. Do you take that threat seriously? Do you think there’s a way to derail or forestall it, from your perspective? Should there be a new outcome in 2020?”

Dermer: “I hope those candidates would reconsider because it would be very dangerous for the state of Israel…The bottom line is this — I hope that all of these candidates will not get locked into a political position. I don’t think they studied the whole issue, I don’t think they’ve had all the briefings, which I think makes the job of organizations like this even more important, tell them the facts. There were a lot of hopes in 2015. There were a lot of question marks about what would be. Now we’re living in exclamation points. We know what happened, let’s not go back to the same failed experiment. Let’s do something else. They don’t necessarily have to have the same position as the current administration. But to go back to the same deal would be a danger, a fundamental danger to Israel, and I hope they will reconsider and we’ll see what happens. It makes my job that much harder.”

On Israel’s concern over Iran in Syria:

Dermer: “If you ask them [Israelis] what they don’t want, they’ll say we don’t want to see Iran there, we want Iran out. The way we think to get Iran out is to have some sort of agreement between the U.S. and Russia and we’ve been encouraging that for some time, it’s actually been a number of years already, to hopefully find a political solution, with one request, get Iran out. The good news is in three weeks, Israel will be hosting the National Security advisor of the United States, the national security advisor of Russia, in Jerusalem to try to discuss this and other regional issues and I think this speaks volumes, also about Israel’s rise as a power in the world, and we are hosting such a summit and we’re not just giving a hotel room, we’re part of those discussions.”

On partisanship in Congress relating to the U.S.-Israel relationship:

Harris: “For our advocacy, it’s extremely important that our audience here, the case to be made for Israel as a progressive cause. When you go to the Hill for example, and you meet with members of the progressive caucus in the Democratic party and people who align with those views, share with us one of the concerns you hear from them, and how do you reply to them?”

Dermer:I would say that it’s — most of the concerns actually focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Which, less so in the last couple of years but before that became, really a focus of the U.S.-Israel relations in a way that — It’s an important issue, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and we should work to resolve the conflict and achieve peace. But as I said, Israel is going to be — in my view — the most important ally of the United States in the 21st century. So it should not be an issue that simply dominates the conversation between Israel and the United States. It’s not in Israel’s interest and I don’t think it’s in America’s interest because, like I said, Israel is helping the US in deep and fundamental ways, in a way that was not true even two decades ago. But they have concerns on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and here you see a difference definitely between the parties in the United States.

“…and you explain to them, the context of the decision making within Israel, that Israel has constantly tried to reach out, tried to make peace with the Palestinians. Inform them of the history, a lot of people don’t know the basic facts. We’re living in a world of narratives and images and, in a world where Israel is strong and the Palestinians are perceived to be weak — for a lot of people that just ends the conversation. It doesn’t matter agency or anything else. You can see it in the time of a conflict, it flares up.

“We’ve had a number of little rounds, within Gaza. But the last time we had a major round, you know you had all these rockets, in 50 days, thousands of rockets, and then you had people who were killed on the other side — and for some people, it’s just a question of how many people are dying on both sides?

“I’m not interested in who’s responsible, who’s not, that they used — Palestinians use their own people as human shields. All the issues that people who follow this issue know most people are getting their information by just turning on CNN or reading the New York Times, or something like that. And when you have an effort, and here I think the New York Times has done a good job of this, of demonizing Israel, week after week after week, I think it’s a serious problem.”

To an audience question on Israel retaining security control over the West Bank and how that hurts the Palestinian hope of having an independent and sovereign state:

Dermer: “You have to have a new conception of sovereignty, that it’s not unlimited sovereignty. And I think if Israel maintains its security, and has the ability to keep any future political entity demilitarized, then I think it’s a sustainable solution. If it doesn’t, then you’re just going to see another Gaza emerge there. Actually, dealing with that through negotiations, it sounds easy but it’s actually quite difficult and you have to shift international public opinion. And maybe we’ll see what will happen in the Trump plan when it comes out, whether it actually takes and addresses Israel’s fundamental security concerns seriously, because they’re not taken seriously by the rest of the world. It’s just like, there will be guarantees and maybe there will be international forces and we’ve seen how that’s worked in other theaters. We don’t have a Sinai in between us and the Palestinians…

“I think if Israel retains security control then it’s possible to find a solution that works as long as Palestinians cross another rubicon — accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in boundary. that’s what the conflict has always been about.”

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