POLITICS

Possible future Israeli ambassador holds two countries in his heart

 

Born and raised on Miami Beach, the man whose name is being bandied about as the next Israeli Ambassador to the United States keeps both nations in his heart.

ebrecher@MiamiHerald.com

In Israel, he’s already known as “Bibi’s Brain:’’ Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s master strategist.

But Ron Dermer, 42-year-old Miami Beach native, now Israeli citizen — the son of one Miami Beach mayor and brother of another — could soon add an official title to his resume: Mr. Ambassador.

Dermer is reportedly Netanyahu’s choice for Israeli ambassador to the United States to replace Michael Oren, who plans to step down in the spring after four years.

A political conservative with close ties to powerful American Republicans, Dermer would become Israel’s top diplomat in the United States, a position requiring the ability to represent his country’s interests across U.S. party lines.

Netanyahu’s office hasn’t commented on the reports. A spokesman for the Israeli consulate in Miami could not confirm the possible appointment, nor could Dermer’s older brother, former Mayor David Dermer, who called any speculation “premature.’’ A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the rumor was “baseless.’’ In any case, the Netanyahu government would have to survive a Parliamentary election later this month.

An Oxford-educated scholar-athlete who holds degrees in finance and management from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, and who quarterbacked Israel’s flag football World Cup team three times, Dermer is known as smart, polished, and so competitive that “he wouldn’t let a 3-year-old beat him at Ping-Pong,” friend Tom Rose, former Jerusalem Post publisher, once said in an interview.

Dermer “cannot abide anybody being better at him than anything, particularly physically,” Rose said.

The mere speculation that Dermer might be named seemed to thrill South Florida politicians from both parties.

“It’s wonderful — one of our own being Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who knows Dermer. “It is just terrific. He is American as apple pie yet Israeli at heart as well. It is a good fit. He is very much a proud Miami Beach guy — very proud of his hometown.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, said she met Dermer as part of a Congressional delegation to Israel in 2010. Dermer was the staff person who sat next to Netanyahu as they discussed the peace process, she said.

“It was just neat to see someone reach the heights he has — he hails from South Florida and comes from a political family here,” she said. “It made the connection and conversations with the prime minister really just that much more warm and intimate.”

U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, said that the job Dermer holds now — working behind the scenes and with the White House — is very different from being ambassador to the United States, which would require him to directly address Americans in speeches and through the media.

“Ambassador to the U.S. is the most high-profile diplomatic position in Israel,” Klein said. “It requires a tremendous amount of savvy and style that Americans can relate to.”

Oren, the departing ambassador, “bent over backward to make sure the message in Washington was Israel should not be a partisan issue,” Klein said. “It is not good for Israel. It is not good for us.”

But Israel did become a partisan issue during the presidential campaign. Republican nominee Mitt Romney — a longtime friend of Netanyahu — and his surrogates, tried to cast Republicans as steadfast friends of Israel, in contrast to Obama, whom they sought to portray as unreliable on the matter of Israel’s security.

Obama, and Jewish Democrats, including Wasserman Schultz, fought back, insisting that the two leaders had good relations.

Growing up on the Beach

Ron is the youngest child of Jay Dermer, a two-term Miami Beach mayor, and Yaffa Dermer, who was born in Palestine before it became the state of Israel.

The Dermers lived on Flamingo Place, in a house just off the corner, a short walk from Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy, from which Ron graduated in 1989.

A Herald story at the time called him a “top scholar” and basketball MVP who won an American Legion award for proficiency in academics and athletics.

“He was a very good student and a high achiever and loved sports — he breathed sports,” said his mother.

“He was really very smart,” added Yael Bloom, a classmate who took advanced placement Calculus and physics with Dermer.

Classmate Hal Klein, of Palm Beach County, described Ron Dermer as a “very sharp, very smart guy. He didn’t study that much because he didn’t have to. ... Things came easy to him.”

That wasn’t always so. At age 3, Ron had trouble forming certain words, including “peanut butter” and “rich,” his mother said. So much so, that his sister, Esther, one year older, would translate his words.

Yaffa Dermer suggested he see a speech therapist, to which his father replied, “‘Forget about it — he’ll grow out of it.’’’

He did, and Esther went on to become a speech therapist.

Jay Dermer won his first Miami Beach mayoral race in 1967. As a Democrat, he unseated then-Mayor Elliot Roosevelt, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sons.

Dermer was reelected once, then unsuccessfully challenged the popular U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, D-Miami, for his House seat.

Two weeks before Ron’s bar mitzvah in 1984, Jay Dermer died of a heart attack.

“Ron was heartbroken,” Yaffa Dermer said.

But after his father’s death, Ron became more invested in his Jewish identity, and later at the University of Pennsylvania helped found the Jewish Heritage Program.

Dermer’s political ascent

Two profiles — a 2010 article in POLITICO and 2011 article in Tablet magazine — describe Dermer’s education and ascent to Israeli politics.

Tablet called Dermer an “Oxford-trained political theorist with Machiavellian political instincts [who] comes across as equal parts George Stephanopoulos and Karl Rove,’’ the political strategist known as “Bush’s Brain,’’ who crafted President George W. Bush’s campaigns.

At Wharton, Dermer took a class from pollster and Republican consultant Frank Luntz, who connected Dermer to the GOP and Israeli politics. Dermer work for Luntz and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on what would eventually become the Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America.”

Before the 1994 congressional midterms, Dermer left for Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics, and planned a career in business, his brother said. He also met members of the “Middle Eastern elite’’ from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, establishing long-lasting relationships, David Dermer added.

Through Luntz, who was doing political polling in Israel, the Hebrew-speaking Dermer got involved in Israeli politics, and met Soviet dissident/émigré Natan Sharansky, with whom he cowrote The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.

The book “became a cornerstone of what is now known as the Bush Doctrine,” POLITICO wrote.

In 1998, Dermer married artist Adi Blumberg, whose father was then chairman of Bank of Jerusalem. She died two years later at 29.

Dermer met current wife Rhoda Pagano, a Yale Law School graduate and mother of his children, at a Jerusalem dinner party given by her boss, Aharon Barak, then Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.

They couple is close to the elder Blumbergs, who “to this day babysit Ron’s kids,’’ according to David Dermer.

After the clerkship, Rhoda returned to New York to work in a Manhattan law firm. She resisted Ron’s entreaties to move to Israel because of terror attacks, David Dermer said.

Then came the attack of Sept. 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center. She moved to Jerusalem, and they married.

They now have four sons — Mayor Jay, Ze’ev, Ezra and Judah — and a baby on the way. Since his nephews were named Jay and Yahkov — his deceased father’s name in English and Hebrew — Ron named his own son “Mayor Jay Dermer,” Yaffa Dermer said.

Dermer became a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and managed to find time to help brother David win the job of Miami Beach mayor in 2001. Both his brother and father were Democrats, although David drew attention for supporting President Bush’s re-election and Gov. Jeb Bush during his 2002 re-election bid.

David Dermer described his brother’s religious leanings as “modern Orthodox.’’

Ron Dermer gave up his U.S. citizenship in 2005 when he became minister for economic affairs and went to Washington, D.C.

“I left America because I wanted to help another nation I love defend the freedoms that Americans have long taken for granted,’’ he once said in a 2005 New York Sun interview. “I left America to help another people I love fight not merely for their survival but also for their right to survive.’’

Yaffa Dermer said her son’s decision made her cry. “But I didn’t blame him — he loved the United States and he loved Israel,” she said.

During a phone interview this week, Aaron David Miller, vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and former adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, called Dermer “a tough, a pragmatic hawk.’’

“How he’ll factor into the continuing Netanyahu-Obama soap opera,’’ Miller said, “is hard to say.”

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