Israeli Ambassador: Netanyahu Never Meant to Disrespect Obama

Ron Dermer answers questions about John Boehner and Iran.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. (Reuters)

Earlier this week, shortly after I published a lengthy post critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, Dermer expressed his general dissatisfaction with the piece to me. But he also agreed to a request to answer several questions about the recent controversy, which centers on an invitation to Netanyahu from House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on Iran, and other subjects. The White House has expressed anger about being blindsided by the invitation. Here are the e-mailed questions, and his e-mailed answers:

Jeffrey Goldberg: It is widely believed (by, among others, me) that you and your government were making an end-run around the White House. Is this not the case?

Ambassador Ron Dermer: Before I answer your question, let me be clear that the prime minister’s visit to Washington is intended for one purpose—to speak about Iran, that openly threatens the survival of the Jewish state. The survival of Israel is not a partisan issue. It is an issue for all Americans because those who seek Israel’s destruction also threaten America.

America and Israel have to face this threat together. The prime minister is looking forward to the opportunity to speak to the American Congress and through them to the American people about what he believes is the greatest challenge of our time—preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Now let me tell you the facts. The speaker’s office initially reached out to me regarding the idea of the prime minister giving a speech less than two weeks before an official invitation was sent. We said that we were open to making such an address and went back and forth with the speaker’s office to see if there were potential dates that could work for the prime minister’s schedule and the congressional calendar. The final decision to invite the prime minister was made by the speaker’s office the day before he was invited—and I was informed of it that afternoon.

It was also made clear to me that it was the speaker’s responsibility and normal protocol for the Speaker’s office to notify the administration of the invitation. That is why I felt it would be inappropriate for me to raise the issue with the administration, including in my meeting with the secretary of state, until the speaker notified them.

The speaker’s office apparently informed the administration about it the morning of the announcement, around two hours before it was publicized. After it was publicized, we were in contact with administration officials, both here and in Jerusalem. We informed them that we wanted to move the date to March 3 so that it could be combined with a visit to AIPAC that the prime minister was also considering. Once that date was cleared with the speaker’s office, the prime minister officially announced that he would accept the invitation to come and speak.

Goldberg: Why does your prime minister seem so confident that President Obama is ready to strike a weak deal with Iran?

Dermer: We have an excellent and ongoing dialogue with the administration regarding the talks with Iran. That dialogue has been honest, open, and constructive. Israel does not know whether there will be a deal with Iran but we are very concerned about where things are headed. The prime minister has expressed those concerns privately to the president and there have been many discussions on this issue at all levels of our two governments.

The basic problem is that our policies regarding Iran are not fully aligned. That is a product of many things, including that Israel is closer and more vulnerable to this threat, and has no margin of error.

Israel’s policy is not merely to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon today; it is also to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon in the future. And Israel is very concerned that a deal will be forged that will not dismantle Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. We are concerned that it would leave Iran with an advanced nuclear infrastructure today—relying on intelligence and inspectors to prevent Iran from breaking out or sneaking out to the bomb—and in the foreseeable future enable Iran to have an industrial-sized nuclear program, as the timeframe for this agreement runs out and all sanctions are removed. That is an outcome that is unacceptable to Israel.

Israel appreciates that relations with Iran are an important foreign-policy priority for the Obama administration. But equally, I would hope that everyone would appreciate what it means to us to see that the deal that is emerging would pose a threat to the survival of Israel.

Goldberg: Democrats (including, and maybe especially, Jewish Democrats) believe that the prime minister is sometimes disrespectful to the president, and they worry that your government privileges its relations with the Republicans at their expense. Assuming you believe this is wrong, why is this wrong?

Dermer: The prime minister and the president have disagreed on issues, but the prime minister has never intentionally treated the president disrespectfully—and if that is what some people felt, it certainly was not the prime minister’s intention.

In fact, I can tell you, as someone very close to the prime minister, that he has a great deal of respect for the president. He also deeply appreciates the many things that President Obama has done for Israel—from upgraded security cooperation and enhanced intelligence sharing to military assistance and Iron Dome funding to opposing anti-Israel initiatives at the UN.

In an era of intense partisanship here, Israel feels very fortunate that we have tremendous friends on both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans alike are committed to strengthening Israel and to strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance, and we deeply, deeply appreciate this bipartisan support.

Goldberg: How does an address to Congress, one arranged by the Republican speaker, not convey the appearance that you're lobbying against the president?

Dermer: I know that people are trying to turn this into a personal or a partisan issue, but for Israel, it is neither. It is about an issue that affects the fate of the country.

In the last couple of weeks, people have heard from Prime Minister Cameron [of Great Britain] and other European leaders about the Iran issue. One would hope that people would feel that the opinion of the prime minister of Israel, a staunch ally of the United States threatened by Iran with annihilation, would also be worth hearing.

Ultimately, everyone will make their own decisions, but we think it is important that Israel’s voice be heard clearly in this debate at this critical time.

Goldberg: Do you believe that an address by the prime minister to Congress will serve the purpose of toughening up the deal?

Dermer: Of course, no one can know for sure what effect any speech can and will have. But I do think the prime minister has a moral obligation, as the leader of Israel and in living memory of an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, to speak up about a deal that could endanger the survival of the one and only Jewish state.

The Jewish people are blessed that today, unlike 70 years ago, we have the power to defend ourselves. And Israel will never cede the right to defend itself under any circumstances.

But the Jewish people today have something else we did not have 70 years ago—a voice—a sovereign voice that gives us the ability to make our case.

There may be some people who believe that the prime minister of Israel should have declined this invitation to speak before the most powerful parliament in the world on an issue that concerns our survival and our future. But we have learned from our history that the world becomes a more dangerous place for the Jewish people when the Jewish people are silent.

That is why the prime minister feels the deepest moral obligation to appear and speak before the Congress while there is still time for him to make a difference.

Whether his words will change anything, I don’t know. But he must speak up while there is still time to speak up.

Goldberg: Does your government seek an armed confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program?

Dermer: Of course not. Resolving this issue peacefully is by far the best outcome for Israel.

But to resolve it, you have to actually resolve it. That means effectively dismantling Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. That is not what the deal on the table will do, and therein lies the problem. The agreement that is being discussed today is not an agreement that would dismantle Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. Rather it is one that would leave Iran as a nuclear-threshold state today and after the timeframe for the deal expires, Iran would face few restrictions and no sanctions on what would quickly become a vast nuclear program.

Iran’s regime is not only committed to Israel’s destruction, it is working towards Israel’s destruction. It has used Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other proxies to fire thousands of rockets and threaten Israel from Lebanon, Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights. Just yesterday, Hezbollah took responsibility for an attack that killed two soldiers and injured seven more.

The international community stands at the precipice of forging an agreement with Iran that could leave this dangerous regime as a threshold nuclear state.  That is not a good deal. We hope that the P5+1 will only sign a deal that truly resolves the problem and dismantles Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability. If that were the deal, Israel would be the first country to support it.