This Week’s Guest: Ron Dermer
From the Iran nuclear deal to the rise of and fall of Islamic State, from Israel’s year of inconclusive elections to a pandemic that has ravaged the globe, the second decade of the 21st century has been historic for both the United States and Israel. And for the better part of these last ten years, Ron Dermer has served as the Jewish state’s ambassador in Washington, D.C. He is not the first native-born American who emigrated to Israel, rose to political prominence, and was then sent back here on behalf of his chosen nation. But his intimate understanding of America and the sensibilities of its citizens—both Jewish and non-Jewish—has helped him in his service. Dermer is now preparing to leave his post and return home to Jerusalem. Before he goes, he joins our editor, Jonathan Silver, to discuss what he’s worked on over his tenure, what he’s proud of, the basis of the U.S.-Israel relationship today, and why he remains hopeful about its prospects in the future.
This conversation was recorded live at the Tikvah-Beren Collegiate Forum.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
One of the things new ambassadors do when they come to town is ask for courtesy meetings with other ambassadors. I always say yes to any ambassador who wants to meet, because first of all I think Israel should not be turning away potential friends, and the second thing is if you get a smart ambassador, it saves you about five years of reading The Economist. One day the ambassador of Burundi comes and asks to see me. We set a meeting, about five years ago, and it was one of these rare days, you’re not going to believe this, where I was actually tired of listening to myself speak. I had a long day, I had several meetings, I talked about Iran, the Palestinians, whatever. I was exhausted. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. I came back to the embassy and I got the ambassador of Burundi, and I know nothing about Burundi. I must confess, I had to go look at a map to make sure I got at least all of the bordering countries.
So I start peppering this guy with questions―what do you make in Burundi, what’s your GDP, what are you trying to achieve in the United States, etc. And I asked him: do you have a security problem? He says not since 2004. I asked what happened in 2004, and he said “Well, in 1994 you had a genocide in Rwanda, it spilled over into Burundi. We had ten years of terrible violence, and then we were able to get a ceasefire and a peace agreement and since then we haven’t had a security problem.” And I asked how many people died in that decade. He said 300,000. So I said “How many people do you think have died in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going back to 1920?” At that time it was almost 100 years. He’s a very intelligent man, and he thought about it and he said to me, “Two million.” I said “You’re very close―you’re off by two zeroes. It’s about 20,000.” Now it’s about maybe 22,000 Israelis and Palestinians who have died in our conflict. I’m not getting into who’s right, who’s wrong, I’m just talking about the number of casualties in our conflict.
If you take the entire Israeli-Arab conflict, which includes Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, all the wars that Israel has fought, and all the Israeli soldiers who have died in those wars, then you’re deaing with 125,000 over that century, of which 22,000 is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He heard this and he was stunned. He couldn’t believe it, and he said to me “Why is everyone so focused on it?” And I said to him “Look, it’s a very good question to ask, and if we have another two hours I’ll explain to you why this obsession with Israeli exists.” I told him that you think this is just a problem for Israel, and it is, but when two thirds of the UN Human Rights Council resolutions are against Israel, and when there are more resolutions passed in the general assembly against Israel than all other countries combined, no one’s talking about your country. It’s shocking that 300,000 people were killed in your country, and I don’t even know it, and I think I’m a fairly well-informed person, but the number was shocking to me. And so you see a total obsession with Israel when other conflicts around the world have had a much greater impact on human misery.