In his first visit to South Florida as Israel’s top diplomat in the United States, Ron Dermer downplayed a developing controversy over alleged U.S. spying on former Israeli leaders and denied that his country “turned its back” on a Weston family whose son was killed in a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv.
Dermer, 42, minimized newly revealed allegations from former National Security Agency contractor and leaker Edward Snowden that in 2009 the NSA tracked email addresses associated with Israeli leaders, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday called for an investigation into the spying allegations, saying the actions were unacceptable. But in a broad-ranging interview with the Miami Herald — his first with a newspaper as ambassador — the Miami Beach native said “everyone should calm down about it.”
“We deeply value the relationship that we have with the United States. You share very sensitive information with us, and we share very sensitive information with you,” Dermer said Monday. “I’m sure that this latest episode is not going to affect the intelligence-cooperation and intelligence-sharing, because both countries have so much to gain from it. It saves American lives. It saves Israeli lives.”
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Israel, he said, takes great steps to secure its official communications, adding that he doubted whatever the NSA may have picked up contained sensitive information.
“We, in Israel, working in the prime minister's office, we always take precautions with our communications,” Dermer said. “Nothing to do with the United States, but we know there are probably many people listening in from around the world. We’re very careful, and I doubt very much there will be great revelations from these emails or other information they have. I think this is going to be a blip in the relationship between the United States and Israel.”
A more-pressing matter between the two countries, he said, is trying to negotiate a solution to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He called it “the most serious issue facing Israel and the highest priority of the prime minister.”
Israel is at odds with an interim deal reached last month in Geneva by the P5+1, which includes the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany.
“If the P5+1 succeeds at dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons program, no country would be happier than Israel,” Dermer said. “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.”
Dermer said Israel would like to see sanctions continue against Iran, taxing its economy. The interim settlement offers some sanction relief in exchange for Iran agreeing to freeze uranium enrichment and construction of a plutonium reactor.
“We see the sanctions as a boiling pot that’s getting hotter and hotter,” Dermer said. “It took years to raise the temperature in that pot. It’s cost Iran about $100 billion that they’ve absorbed in sanctions.
“We think that in order to convince Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program, you’re going to have to put before them a very stark choice: It’s either the regime or ... the program. We want that pot to be boiling and boiling and boiling until they’re presented with that dilemma. And we think that prematurely reducing the temperature of the pot can be a mistake.”
Dermer earned degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford before getting involved in Israeli politics in the mid-1990s. He comes from a political family: His late father, Jay Dermer, was a two-term Miami Beach mayor, and his brother David also served as that city’s mayor.
Dermer gave up his U.S. citizenship in 2005 when he took the position as Israel’s economic envoy in Washington. Dermer then served as a top advisor and consultant to Netanyahu before Netanyahu tapped him in July to be ambassador to the United States.
“The relationship between the United States and Israel is hardwired into me. I’m half and half,” said Dermer, referring to his American upbringing as well as the fact that his father was born in the U.S. and his mother in pre-Israel Palestine.
“I can use the background that I have ... to forge an even deeper alliance between Israel and the United States,” he said.
Dermer officially began his ambassadorship Dec. 3, after a ceremony and a visit with President Barack Obama at the White House. Dermer said he brought his wife and five children, including six-month-old Golda, to meet the president.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, it may have been 40 years since there was a Golda in the Oval Office,’” Dermer said, laughing at his joke, a reference to late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Dermer praised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is working on brokering a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians by the end of April. He revived peace discussions in July after a three-year stalemate.
“He’s committed to our security, and he wants to see a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Dermer said of Kerry.
Israel is unwilling to make concessions toward peace unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes the nation as a Jewish state, Dermer said.
“The question will be, do we have someone on the Palestinian side, a leader who’s really prepared to make a historic compromise that will require concessions from him and concessions from Israel? If we have that leader in President Abbas, we will have peace in a year.”
Dermer briefly touched on a federal lawsuit filed against the Bank of China by a Weston family whose 16-year-old son was killed in a Tel Aviv terrorist bombing.
The lawsuit, which alleges Bank of China knowingly acted as a conduit for money used to fund the bombing that killed Daniel Wultz and 10 others in 2006, has been tied up regarding a potential witness. In a court filing this month, Wultz’s parents claim that Israel turned its back on them by promising them help with the case then moving last month to block a key witness — a former Israeli intelligence official — from testifying.
Dermer expressed sympathy for the family but said the decision to keep the intelligence official from testifying was a matter of national security.
“If your courts decide that an intelligence official can be subpoenaed to speak in open court about information he received ... how are you going to be able to continue any intelligence relationships with countries around the world?” Dermer said. “So, for sure, Israel cannot allow someone to testify on information he got in an official capacity. There’s no question about it.”
The Wultzes and their attorneys say Netanyahu is bowing to pressure from China, with which Israel has been working to improve relations.
Dermer acknowledged that “the strategic relationship between Israel and China is in a different place than it was a few years ago,” but he denied that Netanyahu has abandoned the Wultz family.
“Throughout this entire process, I can assure you, the prime minister was focused on the family, all the time,” Dermer said. “The suggestion that the prime minister turned his back on that family is false. It’s false.”
Dermer, a 1989 graduate of Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy, also talked during the interview about his return “home.”
“I’m not supposed to say where I slept last night because my security might be upset, but I stayed at my mother’s house,” he said “She’s been living in Miami Beach for over 50 years.”