Ambassador upbeat on Israel in St. Louis talk

William Motchan
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer speaks to the audience at the Jewish Community Center on Monday night during his visit to St. Louis. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, presented an optimistic take on life for Jews in Israel and elsewhere during a talk Monday at the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur. 

“We tend to focus all the time on the problems we face, but everyone should understand that our grandparents and their grandparents …. would have given anything to trade their problems with ours,” said Dermer, 46.

He talked about the Iran nuclear deal and anti-Semitism but did not mention the ongoing corruption investigation of his boss, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Dermer focused instead on positives in Israel, like its military strength, start-ups’ accomplishments in the technology sector, and government’s improving relations with some Arab neighbors.

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More than 400 people, including Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, attended the event, which was organized by Jewish Federation of St. Louis and Young Israel of St. Louis, an Orthodox congregation in University City.

Dermer has served as ambassador since 2013. During that time, relations between former President Barack Obama and Netanyahu became more strained than ever because of the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran and Netanyahu’s actions during negotiations.

Dermer had been a senior adviser to Netanyahu before becoming ambassador and was nicknamed “Bibi’s brain.” In 2015, as the Obama administration neared a deal with Iran that would lift economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade, Dermer went around the president to work with Republican leaders in bringing Netanyahu before Congress to speak against the proposed deal. The legislature later approved the six-nation accord with Iran, and the Trump administration has since twice recertified it.

Dermer said the Israeli government was opposed to the deal because the lifting of sanctions and time parameters provide “a path for Iran to get a bomb.” Dermer told The New York Times after Netanyahu’s address to Congress that the prime minister spoke because he felt strongly about the proposed deal but that he did not want “to wade into your political debate or make this a partisan issue” and did not want to “be disrespectful to the president.”

On Monday, he said that “goodwill was on both sides of that debate….As a general rule you always have to tell the difference between an enemy and adversary and this was something that was lost in that debate.”  

 Dermer countered concerns about anti-Semitism and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel movement by saying that global corporations’ investment in Israeli start-ups serves as economic protection. Companies like Apple and Intel do not invest in Israel because “they are Zionists,” Dermer said, but rather because “they want to make money for their shareholders.”

“To think that these companies are going to boycott Israel is to think they are going to boycott Silicon Valley. BDS is a not an economic threat; it’s a moral threat because people want to turn Israel into a pariah state. They want to demonize the country and we should fight back against it,” said Dermer.

A Florida native, Dermer addressed the attack Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., where a driver ran into a crowd of people who were protesting a white supremacists’ rally. The ambassador did not mention by name President Donald Trump, whose response to the attack has been criticized,  but instead said he was “glad to hear strong statements from the left to the right, from the top to the bottom. Everyone has a duty to speak out. That duty specifically falls on leaders and I was pleased to hear a very strong statement today.” 

Trump had earlier named and decried neo-Nazis and other hate groups for the first time since the attack.

Dermer was a charismatic speaker who sprinkled in jokes, like one about how he and Greitens both attended the same college within the University of Oxford because the governor also probably “thought it was still an all-girls college.” And of the Republican representative who yelled “you lie” at Obama, Dermer said the legislator was disrespectful but added that “if we could get the prime minister into and out of the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) without one person calling him a liar, they would give us the Israel Prize.”

“I think we were all mightily impressed by his authenticity, by his commitment to supporting Israel and by his respect” for those who may have profound disagreements with Dermer in our community, said Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Many American Jewish leaders and organizations, including Rehfeld and Federation board members, expressed opposition to the prime minister’s decision in June to suspend implementation of a long-sought agreement to create an official egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Dermer framed the decision as the prime minister refusing to cancel the deal, as Orthodox members of his coalition had requested, and instead freezing it. He predicted that the space would be built within eight or nine months.

“Remember that the prime minister of Israel is not a king, and he’s not a president,” said Dermer.

The Israeli police are investigating whether Netanyahu offered political favors in exchange for gifts, and made a deal to get favorable coverage from one newspaper, Yediot Acharonot, in exchange for curtailing the circulation of a competitor, the free and pro-Netanyahu tabloid, Israel Hayom. A former chief of staff recently became a state witness in the case.

Dermer did not mention the investigation during the talk and only took three pre-submitted questions. After the talk, when asked by the Jewish Light about the investigation, he said “we have a good rule of law in Israel” and then walked away.

Rehfeld said he understood why the ambassador did not mention the investigation and that it “would not have been productive to pursue that line of questioning” from the audience after the talk.

“The ambassador has two roles. He is the symbolic representative of the state of Israel to the world….and he is appointed to serve the prime minister. The fact that he didn’t address corruption charges against his boss doesn’t surprise me,” said Rehfeld. 

Mike Minoff, president of St. Louis Friends of Israel, said he thought the ambassador did a “good job of trying to stay out of politics” and described him as a “great salesman for Israel.”

“While it may be interesting to hear his take on [the investigation], as an ambassador and employee of the government, I don’t know what he can really say,” said Minoff, a member of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Olivette.

Leonard Frankel, a past president of Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, disagreed with the ambassador on the Iran deal; he agreed with the Obama administration that the Israeli government and others had not provided a workable alternative and that additional sanctions would not work. But despite his opposition, Frankel said he thought Dermer presented his argument on the deal “very well from the government’s point of view, and I respected what he had to say and the way he said it.”

After the questions, Greitens, who is Jewish, spoke about connections between Missouri and Israel. He also presented Dermer with a proclamation declaring him a “friend of Missouri” and offered “Missouri’s continued friendship and support for the people of Israel.”

On Tuesday, Dermer met with Jewish community leaders. He and Greitens also spent the day together, participating in a roundtable discussion organized by BioSTL, a group that aims to bring Israeli companies to St. Louis. They also had lunch at Kohn’s Kosher Deli in Creve Coeur.