In the thick of it: A conversation with Ambassador Ron Dermer led by Ethan Bronner


This Q&A is adapted from one of eight mainstage conversations held at Z3 2020: Visions of a Shared Futurea virtual conference produced by The Z3 Project and the Oshman Family JCC of Palo Alto, California, aimed at reimagining Diaspora-Israel relations.

President Donald Trump led a dramatic shift in U.S.-Israel relations. Under his administration, the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as being part of Israel. The White House also brokered the Abraham Accords, a major peace deal between Israel and several Arab states in the Persian Gulf. The Q&A below, which has been condensed and lightly edited, was adapted from a discussion between Ethan Bronner, a Bloomberg senior editor and former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief,  and Ron Dermer, who served as Israel’s 18th ambassador to the United States from 2013 to 2021.

Bronner: So you’ve really had an extremely eventful term here — and I know that you’ve been very personally, intimately involved in an enormous number of important changes. The Abraham Accords come to mind, but I want to start with asking you: On the one hand, the United States and Israel have become closer than ever during the Trump administration and your time here. On the other hand — not beginning with Trump, but continuing with Trump — the U.S. role in the Middle East has declined, Israel’s role in the region is growing and the Americans’ role in the region has declined. What do you think?

Dermer: I think it’s a very astute observation. Because I think Israel’s emergence as a regional power has been accelerated by a perception among our Arab neighbors that the U.S. role in the region is being reduced […] and that is actually something that connects President Obama and President Trump, and now President-elect Biden. It actually connects all three of them together because no one has been arguing we need to send more troops to the Middle East. And therefore, Israel’s role in the strategic calculations of countries in the region […] is becoming more important — and the need to work with Israel, in terms of dealing with common challenges, becomes more important. And I think that’s part of the reason why we were able to achieve the breakthrough we did.

One of them is certainly the danger of Iran that I think unites Israel and our Sunni Arab neighbors. I think there is a concern there not only from Iran’s fanaticism and radical revolutionary policies — Iran is Shia power — but you also have Sunni radical movements that also concern those states. Al-Qaida is 1.0 and ISIS is 2.0. And they know that a 3.0 is going to happen, so you have two challenges, both on the Shia and Sunni side, of extremism. And they need an ally to confront those challenges together with that ally. Now if you have the perception that the U.S. is leaving the region, then you sort of have a situation where you’ve got this Iranian tiger, and you’ve got this ISIS — or whatever comes next — leopard, and then you have an 800-pound American gorilla that’s leaving the building. And so they look around and see ‘well, there’s this 250-pound gorilla wearing a kippah. Maybe we should work with them more closely.’ And I think that helped bring us to the moment that we saw emerge in the last several months. Another factor is the rise of Israel as a technological power in the world.

In other words, Israel is simply a much more powerful state than it was 10 or 30 years ago. Right?

I think there’s no question about it.

It’s a contemporary version of the “Iron Wall”?

That’s an interesting insight. The old Jabotinsky theory that says Israel must be extremely strong, that the Arab states will try to attack Israel until they realize that they’ve gone up against an Iron Wall […] I think here, it’s much more than a wall because it’s also about what Israel can do for them, to enhance their own security and enhance their own prosperity.

And the other slight paradox that’s interesting is that Israel had developed a security doctrine of the periphery which was basically Israel, Iran and Turkey against the Arabs. And now we have the inverse of this with: Israel and the Arabs against Turkey and Iran.

Well, in the case of Iran, that’s true because of the common dangers it poses. And many of those Arab states, you’re quite right, see Turkey under Erdogan — I don’t know if it’s Turkey so much as Erdogan as an individual — but they see his connections with the Muslim Brotherhood as something that endangers them as well. And that would be true for Egypt, it would be true for the Emirates, true for the Saudis and others. So you’re right, it’s definitely different than it was 40 or 50 years ago.  But this new story, part of the reason why it happened, is that the U.S. is receding from the scene. So I think a lot of people don’t appreciate that. 

Also, Israel’s rise as a power has also affected our relationship with the United States. I’ll tell you, in 2014, the first Independence Day that I was a sitting Israeli ambassador, I said that I believe Israel will be the most important ally of the United States in the 21st century. Remember, Susan Rice was the national security adviser at the time, she was at that Independence Day event. And I explained why: I said because of security and technology. Because you do not have a better security ally, I said, than Israel. And if you think about security in terms of a military that can defend itself by itself, so you don’t have to risk your sons and daughters to defend another country. If you think about intelligence, a formidable intelligence capability — and here Israel is, the finest intelligence service in the world. A cyber capability — and Israel is renowned for its cyber capabilities. And certainly if you think about the great cyber powers that are emerging, just on the United States side of the equation [Russia and China on the other side], you really have Great Britain and Israel as being those two allies who the U.S. can partner with on a global level in terms of cyber. 

And then you have weapons-making capabilities, offensive and defensive capabilities. [In] the Iron Dome system that we jointly developed with the United States, […] we have a trophy system which helps to avoid incoming missiles from tanks, and that was also developed from Israel. So you have Israel as a remarkable security partner, and then as a technology partner. People have heard this story for the last 20 years […] Israel being the startup nation — this emerging technology power — but it’s more than just a feel-good story. It actually affects relations that Israel has with other states and the technologies.

That’s why the UAE and Bahrain got involved with Israel, partly, right?

It’s certainly part of the reason. If you think about the traditional Arab boycott of Israel, it’s a little bit like Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and half of Southern California boycotting Silicon Valley because we are the second great center of innovation in the world. And to the extent that you have leaders in the Arab world who want to catapult their countries forward, Israel becomes a very good ally to do that with. And I think that’s part of the reason why they wanted to sort of make this jump. Because Israel’s technological prowess is not on the descent — it’s still ascending. Because you’re moving into a world of innovation, and if you think about technologies — not just the technologies that people know Israel’s good at, like agriculture or water … but cyber [and] autonomous vehicles, where Israel’s got 300-400 car companies […] just dealing with the technology under the hood. And of course, I think the big thing is artificial intelligence […] one of those areas [that’s] going to become more and more important. So all of those things together — that’s the reason why, in 2014, I said [Israel]l was going to be the most important ally in the 21st century. 

That’s a very big statement to make from a guy who has the privilege of representing a country the size of New Jersey with all of 9 million citizens. But if you stop and you think about those two things — security and technology — which is the best American partner looking ahead, 50 years, you see that it’s not so crazy anymore. When I said it in 2014, a lot of eyebrows went up. Now people say, ‘OK, now I hear the argument.’ I think in 10 years from now, people are gonna say, ‘well, of course, of course that’s the case.’

And I think this truth, Ethan, was kind of buried under policy disagreements with the Obama administration. It was buried under policy agreements with the Trump administration. And a lot of times people lose sight of these tectonic plates that are pushing the two countries together. So I’m very bullish on the U.S.-Israel relationship because I think ours and American interests are actually moving closer together, not further apart. And if the United States […] is going to withdraw [militarily] from the region, then the importance of having a solid, reliable, democratic ally in the heart of this region grows. Therefore I’m very confident about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship because it is on this trajectory, and Israel is bringing a lot more to the table than it did 20, 40, 60, certainly 72 years ago.

There’s no question about that. And this has been especially evident in these last few years. But now I want to ask you to imagine what might go wrong — what could be the problems? First in the new relationships with the Sunni sheikhdoms, and also I want to get to the Palestinian question. Because while it is not an existential problem, there is a human rights issue there — and the United States, in terms of its relationship, especially if a Democratic administration is coming in, can make something of a difference. So let’s go one at a time.  Let’s first start with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. I understand there’s an incredible warmth that you feel from the officials of both these countries, one sees it. It’s really very heartening. And there is an enormous amount that you and these countries can do together. What do you worry about?

Well, first, let’s understand the difference between what you had in the case of Egypt, or what you had with Jordan. As your viewers know […] when Sadat made his decision, he faced enormous opposition, meaning he was alone in the Arab world in making that decision. Egypt was thrown out of the Arab League, and this peace that Sadat made was rejected by Arab governments throughout the region. […] And today, if you fast forward 40 years from 1979, when the Crown Prince — Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed — made this decision, it was welcomed by several important governments in the region. A few were quiet, which can speak volumes in the region. And to the extent that we can measure public opinion, there was a great resonance of this peace with people throughout the region.

There are many reasons why that may be it might be — because we don’t have a border dispute with the Emirates and Bahrain; we haven’t fought wars with the Emirates and Bahrain. … But you just don’t see political, military, cultural forces militating against us the way that you still do with Egypt, or you do necessarily with Jordan. Until quite recently, if an Egyptian businessman would make a deal with a Tel Aviv businessman, he may come back and his home could be burnt down. And so you have support at the top with President Sisi, but also forces within Egypt that militate against it. […] I don’t see any of that in the Emirates. Now, given that the Emirates are a financial and commercial center in the Arab world, if I could think of one country where you would have the most bang for your buck or buck for your bang, I should say, by making peace with them in the Arab world, I would say it’s the Emirates.

What would you worry about?

First and foremost, a change in policy in Iran that will impact the normalization […] Why did this happen now? There has been an opportunity here for several years — I would say going back to about 2014 or 2015. It couldn’t have happened 15 years ago or 20 years ago because the Arab states did not make a decision that it was in their interest to actually merge into an alliance with Israel. That is something that really came to the fore in the last decade, accelerating in 2014, 2015, 2016, giving the window of opportunity that ultimately diplomats were able to push through. What created that opportunity? So I mentioned some of the factors: the rise of Iran, the rise of Sunni fanaticism, the perception that the U.S. was withdrawing, and Israel’s technological power. The Arab Spring made them more concerned about stability…

They understood that their problems were not a result of the Palestinian situation?

No, they understood that a long time ago, Ethan. It was a myth that caused tremendous damage, because it actually guided policymakers for decades, and it was basically based on nonsense. There are problems in the Middle East, and you have a battle between the forces of modernity and medievalism. And [Arab states] see that it is no longer became a tenable position to say that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be an elixir to all the problems in the region.

The reason why we didn’t have the opportunity for a breakthrough earlier, is because the Arab states had been poisoning their populations for decades to believe that Israel is this tremendous force for evil. They sold to a lot of Western diplomats [a veto] ‘we have to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before we can do anything.’ And that was a way for many regimes to divert from the fact that they were keeping their people in a very backward situation for centuries […] The veto, by the way, was given also by the West, by the European foreign ministries, by the United States – both Republican and Democratic administrations. They basically were working under the principle that unless the Palestinians agree, that we’re never going to have any progress with the Arab world. 

I cannot tell you how many officials on both sides of the aisle said to me while I was there, in meetings with the Prime Minister and said, ‘you know, if you make peace with the Palestinians, you’ll get 21 Arab states, 22 Arab states to make peace with Israel.’ And we say, ‘well, that’s great. But what if the Palestinians don’t want to make peace? What do we do? Do we give them a veto power over this process?’ And that has been there really for 40 years until 2020. 

People said ‘hey, look, you have to have this breakthrough with the Palestinians to have peace with Egypt.’ Sadat actually showed that [the Israel-Palestine conflict] didn’t have a veto power. And from Sadat [onwards] you had 40 years of this nonsensical policy being put front and center. So the recipe for success is to confront Iran, embrace your allies in the region and leave the door open for the Palestinians. Leave a door open for them if they want to actually engage with us to reach peace – but don’t put that front and center and don’t give them the veto power. 

I do think that the Trump administration deserves the credit, for whatever reason for deciding that it was not going to put the Palestinian issue front and center – something that seemed unimaginable in foreign ministries across the world and in this country until the Trump administration took over.  I know you and the Prime Minister have been arguing against that for a long time – but it seems to me that [Arab states] are coming in and saying ‘we actually don’t consider this a terribly important problem; the other stuff is more important’. And that created a breakthrough that wouldn’t have happened without them. Do you think I’m right?

The Trump administration was laser focused, from the beginning, on trying to get an Israeli-Palestinian deal. What they didn’t do, is they didn’t hold up everything and chase after the Palestinians to cater their every whim. They also put forward a peace deal, which is the only realistic deal. […] When President Trump made the decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital, they just stopped engaging. The peace plan did not come out until over two years later […]

I want to talk about the Palestinian issue. What’s happened with the UAE and Bahrain is a strong case that you make. But the question I have: is the Palestinian issue not an existential threat to Israel? A threat to Israeli society, to Israeli democracy, to Israeli morality? Ruling over people who do not have full rights? And even if they do not chase after you – what do you do about it?

The moral obligation of a government is to protect the lives of their people. That is the single most important thing. The Palestinians – half their politics is dominated by a force that calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. We have a second half run by the Palestinian Authority that has poisoned an entire generation of Palestinians to hate Israel, to hate Jews and has shown no willingness whatsoever to reach a historic compromise.

I don’t suffer from the moral compunctions that you’re talking about […] I have seen no evidence that they have actually been willing to turn and tell their people that you need to live in peace with Israel. I haven’t seen it in their schooling systems and I haven’t seen it in their media. And if you want to understand where the Palestinians are, and you want to focus on what the chances of them moving towards peace, don’t focus on what this or that diplomat in Europe or the United States is saying – just turn on a television set; look what the Palestinians are watching; look what they’re reading. And then you understand whether or not you have a force here that is willing to compromise. […] 

Now I do feel that there are Palestinians who would really like to reach a compromise with Israel, but they are not the ascendant force today. And I haven’t seen any evidence that the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority is prepared to confront the rejectionists. Why is the breakthrough with the Arab states so important? Because part of the argument of the rejectionists on the Palestinian side was having the entire Arab world lined up. And my hope would be that if Israel is able to have peace agreements with five Arab states, hopefully we can move that to 10 or to 12.  […] and those forces within Palestinian society that would like to seek an accommodation with Israel, would be emboldened. And the rejectionists who say, ‘wait, the entire Arab world is behind us’ those other forces could say, ‘what are you talking about the Arab world is moving ahead with Israel,’ and that they could see the benefit that peace could bring them. […] . What you need is a Palestinian leader who is more interested in the lives of the Palestinians than the Palestinian cause. […] Instead, they’re wedded to a cause, they put forward positions that have no chance of any sane Israeli Government agreeing to and it makes it impossible to move ahead. And the ones who finally understood it – before the diplomats of Britain, or the diplomats of France, or the diplomats, even in the United States – were the Arabs. I can’t tell you how many people have told me personally – Arab leaders – who say they will never make peace with you. They tell us that!

I understand, but why do you not consider the challenge internally for Israel to be having to rule over these people without giving them full rights? Why does it not bother you?

98% of Palestinians live under the control of the Palestinian Authority. And they apparently vote for the Palestinian leadership, once every 15 or 20 years if they ever get around to actually having a real election.  What is the alternative to what Israel faces now? […] how can can we leave an open door for Palestinian leadership that wants to make peace, and [also] just move forward to continue to build our [own] country militarily, technologically and diplomatically? 

The argument of those who did [Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005] – which I opposed at the time – was: we should walk out because it is better for Israel, and for all the reasons that you mentioned before. And it’s proven to be a strategic disaster. You take an area like Gaza – you’re not dealing with the possibility of two, three or four, missiles. Now we’re dealing with the possibility of thousands. So if the alternative is for Israel to take action that could endanger the very security and survival of Israel, then Israelis are not going to do that.

Palestinian leadership is pampered by the international community; they never have to put forward real good faith compromise to peace, and everyone kind of dismisses it. And so they’ll talk about Clinton and Camp David. And now all of a sudden what was Arafat’s counteroffer? They’ll mention Olmert; that Olmert made a proposal to the Palestinians in 2008, and there has never been a counteroffer. In the last 11-12 years [I have been] intimately involved in every detail. I’ve never seen any good faith effort by the Palestinian leaders to try to reach an accommodation, because they don’t want to reach an accommodation. They do not want a state that will live at peace with Israel – they want to have a state that’s going to attack Israel. And it’s very clear to anyone with eyes in their head that that’s the case. And that’s what most Israelis understand. 

Why doesn’t the continued establishment and growth of settlements cause a problem in this? Why do you not consider that an irritant to the possibility of a future coexistence? 

You’ve had a conflict for 50 years before 1967. It is the refusal of the Palestinian National Movement to recognize a nation state for the Jewish people in any boundary. That’s what our conflict is.

I’m going to tell you a story that will explain how much this is not understood. We spent a lot of time on the Palestinians by the way – this was why we never got to peace with anyone, because we’re focusing on an issue that they are not prepared to solve right now, instead of actually dealing with all the opportunities that exist. So this interview is kind of a microcosm of what’s happened for the last 25 years in terms of peace speaking: let’s talk about the Palestinians over and over and over again, and get nowhere. But I want to tell you this true story that will actually explain a lot of the problem.

Before I was chosen to be ambassador, I hadn’t yet taken up my post. I had been nominated already, and I think the government maybe had even voted on it. And it was in late August 2013 or early September 2013. John Kerry, who was Secretary of State, had started this peace process, and was trying to get the parties together, and hopefully to work to see if they could get a deal. And one of the key people on his team asked to meet with me in Jerusalem at the end of 2013. This person wanted to talk to me about the upcoming speeches at the UN General Assembly, which was going to be three or four weeks later, that September. And this person was very concerned that those speeches would lead to a rupture between Israel and the Palestinians. […] His idea, trying to launch this peace process and get it off the ground, was to make sure that these speeches would not derail his efforts. So he comes and says ‘I would like to know what you want to hear the Palestinian leader say.’ And he told me what the Palestinians wanted to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu say, because they thought that I’d have some hand in the writing of the Prime Minister’s speech. And a lot of it had to do with a recognition of their suffering during this conflict. And if you go look at the speech, we tried to find a truthful way to incorporate that ‘yes, people on both sides have actually suffered during this conflict’. Then he said ‘what would you like to hear him say?’ I said I don’t expect President Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish State – the nation state of the Jewish people – in his speech to the UN. He hadn’t done it at that point. Four years after the bar Ilan speech, I didn’t expect him to do it. I said, he’ll have to do it to get a peace agreement. But I don’t expect him to do it in the speech.

So I asked for two things. The first thing: to recognize that the Jews are a people, not just a faith. The reason why that’s important is that faiths have no right to self determination and peoples do. The second thing is to recognize some history between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Forget about the 20th century. The fact that Jews pray facing Jerusalem for thousands of years; kings of Israel, or the prophets of Israel; some reference […] The person thought it was doable; perfectly reasonable. I said ‘I don’t want to trip you up but I don’t think it’s doable at all. I hope that you’re right.’ Of course, he called me back a few days later, and said they’re not willing to do it. And I said, ‘of course, they’re not willing to do it. Because that’s what the conflict is about.’

I’m just saying there’s another side to this issue, which is apart from saying the Palestinians have not come to the table. I also believe that there’s an internal Israeli issue about ruling over people without rights. But I’m going to move on because you don’t want to talk about it.

I don’t accept the premise that we are ruling people without rights. Ethan, as a matter of international law, Israel is legally in these territories. So a lot of the things that are said about Israel’s presence are simply false. On the issue of the settlements, there’s now a change in the US position over the last year that Israel’s settlements and building in those…

I’m not questioning the legality, I’m saying that there are two legal systems in the West Bank: one for Jews and one for non-Jews. And this is a problem. 

It’s one for Israelis and one for Palestinians – no.  You’re making allegations that are not true. It has nothing to do with Jews and non-Jews. This is the problem: you get a Palestinian leader who comes to the United Nations and accuses Israel of genocide – genocide! Israel is accused of genocide. Why? Now it’s accused of apartheid, what’s apartheid? So what do you mean? What do you mean by having a legal system for Jews and for non-Jews? If you want to say Israelis, whether you’re an Arab or a Jew, an Israeli or Palestinian, it’s different!

Let’s call them Israeli and non-Israelis.

Because we are Israeli citizens, and we treat our citizens differently… every state in the world does it. […] Having partners in the region, these other Arab states who actually want to advance and work in partnership with Israel, to encourage those Palestinian moderates who would like to make peace with Israel. Will that happen? I don’t know. Is it more likely to happen after 2020? I would say yes. I think the breakthrough with the Arab states happened not despite the decision over Jerusalem or despite the decision of the Golan Heights. I think it happened almost because of the decision because they showed you [Palestinian leadership] don’t have a veto.

We want to move forward and we’re moving forward with our Arab allies. And the danger will be with people who change the policy. If, instead of confronting Iran, embracing allies, and putting the Palestinian issue in its proper perspective, people change that and say ‘we’re going to appease Iran, we’re gonna have friction with our allies, we’re gonna put the Palestinian issue front and center’ I guarantee you’re not gonna have any progress.

I want to ask you about a couple of other things. We now have a change of administration underway here and one of the things that the Trump administration did, of course, was to pull the United States out of the Iran deal. This incoming administration seems to suggest it wants to try to go back in.   I know that you don’t want them to […] but […] has anybody asked you?

When Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Congress, he put forward a proposal. And he said you have to link the removal of the restrictions in the nuclear deal to a change in the behavior of the Iranian regime. If you just put it on automatic pilot, and you put these sunset clauses after five years, or eight years, or ten years or fifteen years….it’s only going to make the problem worse […]

Over the last few years, journalists have said a lot about the importance of truth and facts. But I’m old enough to remember 2015. And I remember that statements were made, that were simply false – that this deal blocks Iran’s path to a bomb. None of the other concerns add up to this concern. And so if there would be a deal, that would actually block Iran’s path to the bomb, I would be the first to support it, Prime Minister [Netanyahu] would be the first to support it, but it… doesn’t.   I think it would be a grave mistake to go back to the JCPOA. I think in 2015, there were a lot of question marks about the deal. Now we know exactly what happened even before Trump pulled out. And now to go back to that deal would be even worse than going into it in the first place.

Do you think they really will try to go back?

Well, I can only judge based on what they’re saying, because at this point, they haven’t started the meetings. For the last six months the incoming administration has been very sensitive to having any talks with foreign officials. So what I suspect will happen – and we will do this in good faith to try to reach a common position with the new administration – I hope that they will hear us out. I hope they will hear their other allies in the region out and that they will listen to what our concerns were.

I remember when the deal was sounded, saying this is the position of the allies of the United States: Britain, France and Germany. The allies of the US in the region – who were in the region – had a very different view. But what do we know, we just live there? And I think there’s a moral calculation here. You saw it when they had the six-party talks with North Korea with both the Clinton and the Bush administrations…two of the countries who were in those six-party talks, one of them was Japan and the other was South Korea. And Japan and South Korea were backing the deals that were made. And I think that has to count for something – the ones with skin in the game. 

In 2015, neither Israel nor the Arab states were there. And so I think it is critical for them to speak to us in the region. They’ll have to discuss it with us. I hope they will discuss it with us. And I hope that we can forge a common policy. I can tell you from the point of view of Israel, we will certainly try to forge a common policy with an incoming administration. We hope they will see the region for what it is today and work with their allies. It’s very interesting. We – the Saudis, the Emiratis and others – have the same position when it comes to Iran. That’s gotta mean something.

Do you think that the Abraham Accords will give the UAE and Bahrain greater influence [in U.S. policy] when this question comes up? In other words, they’ll say ‘We’ve actually taken a risk for something that we believe in, that you believe in too, which is our alliance with Israel. And so, listen to us when we say don’t go back to the JCPOA’.  Do you think that the Saudis will say to the Biden administration, ‘Listen to us on this, and I think we can probably do something with Israel’?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I think that the critical question will be what is said publicly – not just what is said privately. Israel and our Arab neighbors had the same view of the Iran deal privately, and the Obama administration knew that. But the only ones who said publicly what they were saying privately was Israel.  There are good signs, from my point of view, of what we’ve seen over the last few weeks after the US elections. You also saw leading officials in Arab countries stake out public positions of what they think should happen – and I think that bodes well. And I hope that President Elect Biden and his national security team will reach out come January 20th – because they’re not talking to people before – or in those first few weeks. And to say, ‘okay, here’s what we want to do – is there a common ground to be found with Israel and the Arab states? Can we have a policy that can also be backed by that?’ Now, I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think we should exhaust that possibility and see if we can reach that common ground.  Because we want to ensure that Iran never develops a military nuclear capability. That is the single most important thing for Israel. And a deal that would achieve that outcome – which was said in 2015, even though it wasn’t true – is one that Israel would support. Even though it may open other problems for Israel, at least the one existential problem will be resolved.

And this is what people never understood regarding the deal. And it’s important for them to understand it today. If Israel was faced with a deal where the nuclear issue was fully resolved, then that is a deal that we could support even though it wouldn’t be a perfect deal. From our point of view, we still have other problems; Iran would still be dangerous. It would solve one existential threat. The problem with the [2015 JCPA] nuclear deal was that it didn’t close that problem. It didn’t even delay it, contrary to what people said – because Iran is doing research and development on advanced centrifuges. And it created much bigger problems, by reducing the sanctions and giving a tailwind for all of Iran’s aggression throughout the region and its terror campaign.

Traditionally, the American Jewish community has been run by secular liberals – the Jared Kushners of the world. And I think of the Obama Jews and the Trump Jews, and now the Obama Jews are going to come back into office, and the Trump Jews will leave office. But on the other hand, it seems to me that broadly, the Jewish community in this country as it moves forward is beginning to resemble more the Jewish community in Israel. That is to say, the secular Jews’ children are intermarrying, and those who are more religiously affiliated will take on greater positions of leadership. And instead of it being 80-20 Democratic or 70-30, will head toward more like 50-50. What do you think?

I don’t know. It’s a good question in a generation from now. Will that be true? You talk about voting patterns among American Jews…I guess the last Republican to carry the Jewish vote – many people think it’s Reagan, but Carter actually got more votes at 45% – was Warren Harding, a full century ago. So I don’t know what will happen in 10 years.

There’s a difference, obviously, between the Jewish population in the United States and Jewish population in Israel. Because a lot of issues that are front and center for the Israeli population are not front and center all the time; like the security dilemma that you deal with every single day is very different. I think assimilation is a different problem in Israel than outside of Israel, because assimilation inevitably leads to intermarriage outside of Israel, whereas assimilation in Israel – meaning being less connected to Jewish particularism, let’s say – doesn’t necessarily lead to assimilation.  The chances of an Israeli Jew marrying another Israeli Jew are very high and you have very few little intermarriage between Jews and Arabs. You do have Russian and other immigrants with a higher percentage of people not technically or Halachically Jewish – but it’s a different type of problem.

I don’t know what will happen to the American Jewish community but I do think that we have seen shifts – and shifts that  take a long time to happen. One of them is that Israel has become the center of Jewish civilization in a way that it wasn’t 30, 50 or 100 years ago.  Because when Israel was established in 1948, only 5% of the world’s Jews lived in Israel. And now Israel is the largest Jewish community in the world. I also think there’s a generational shift from people who remembered a world without the State of Israel. If they’re not 85 years old, they won’t remember such a world. And if they’re not 65, you don’t remember a vulnerable Israel. So Israel’s rise as a power, I think, has also affected people’s views.

[…] I do think that there is a real challenge of maintaining Jewish identity. I’m thinking about what affects the relationship between Israel and the diaspora. Because a lot of times, people focus on this or that issue within Israel.  Whether it’s a policy that a particular Israeli government has; an issue like the Kotel; orconversion or other issues that are sometimes very [controversial] that people focus on.  I think the larger issue is an attenuated Jewish identity. It doesn’t matter which stream of Judaism somebody affiliates with. But if there’s not a strong Jewish identity, there’s no reason to believe that there’s going to be a strong connection to a Jewish State. So the single most important thing, I think, if we’re going to try to ensure that the bonds between Israel and the next generation of American Jews remain strong, is, frankly, to strengthen Jewish identity.

When I first got here, in the first few months, I spoke somewhere, and somebody asked me ‘what is your advice to American Jews?’ I said, ‘well, strengthen Jewish identity, because that’ll ensure that the next generation will be connected to Israel.’ And somebody told me Yitzhak Rabin had been there 40 years before, and said the same thing. So apparently I was in good company. And this is something that Ben Gurion understood; Rabin understood. The leaders of Israel understand that if you are more connected to Jewish life – if you’re more connected to Jewish identity – you are going to be more connected to the Jewish State. Opposition is a connection…I think people are not recognizing that a lot of these shifts are kind of an Israeli coming of age, and taking its place as a center of Jewish civilization in a way that it was not a few decades ago. And it also gives a certain responsibility for Israel, vis-a-vis American Jews and Jews in the Diaspora, that maybe did not exist 30, 40, 50 years ago. 

You’ve spent more than seven very exciting years here.  There was an interview where you said that your proudest moment was when the Prime Minister spoke in Congress – and I think you said that even after the Abraham accords. But I just want to check here that that’s still the moment you’re proudest of. I know you’re rather a defined character. Aren’t the Abraham Accords a greater moment of pride for you?

I’m very proud of the Abraham Accords. But I’ll explain to you exactly why I said what I said. One thing I’ve tried to do as ambassador, especially when I speak in different communities […] I try to let Jewish communities in these States appreciate what it means to have a sovereign Jewish State. What is the meaning of sovereignty? Why is Israel different [from] a Jewish community? What are the blessings of sovereignty? And the blessing of sovereignty is a voice, a refuge and a shield. I think people understand the refuge, people fleeing persecution from around the world – they should always have a place that they can come to in Israel. Because other countries changed their immigration policies all the time, including the United States, and people understand what it means to have a shield, which is probably the greatest transformation that occurred in the history of the Jewish people, that we went from powerlessness to power and have the ability to defend ourselves.

But the thing that the speech did to me was the third element of Jewish sovereignty, which is having a voice, meaning the ability to speak out on matters that are vital for your future. Because 75 years ago, 80 years ago, when Jews were facing the prospect of imminent destruction, they had to beg Polish diplomats to go and to say something to Roosevelt – Jan Karski is the most famous one. The Jews […] did not have a collective voice.  And so to me, part of what it means to be a sovereign state is to speak out on issues that are so vital. And in making that speech, the Prime Minister of Israel, in my view, fulfilled his fundamental moral obligation to speak out. 

Whether people agree – whether people disagree – is another question.  I remember 10 days or so after the speech was announced, I met with the Jewish community leaders here in Washington… but many of them had had big issues with the Prime Minister coming… and speaking in Congress. Most of them, actually. And they asked me why I was so supportive of it. And I told them what happened in Evian in 1938.  In Evian, France was a meeting that the Roosevelt administration was sort of pressured into hosting to deal with the Jewish refugee problem that was emerging then in Europe.

And you had all these delegates that came from around the world to the Evian conference. And Hitler, famously in that conference, sent a letter to the delegates there. And you can read that, and find that letter online. And he says, you can have the Jews, I’ll even put them on luxury ships for you. And the only countries that really did anything, you had the Kindertransport that went to Britain –  while Britain was closing the gates of then Palestine- they took 10,000 kids in the Kindertransport. The Dominican Republic was another country that said that they would take in up to 100,000 Jews, but everybody else basically did nothing. What’s interesting about that conference is there was a delegate from then-Mandatory Palestine. There was a delegate. They were allowed to participate, but they were not allowed to attend, they were not allowed to speak. And that delegate is the woman behind me, Golda Meir. So a future Prime Minister of Israel was not allowed to speak on the eve of the destruction of Jews. 

And why I felt so strongly about it then, and why I feel it now, is we have a regime in Tehran that openly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. They actively work to achieve that goal. They want to develop nuclear weapons, in order to destroy the State of Israel. They tweet about the destruction of Israel. […] Faced with such a regime, which calls openly for the destruction of the one and only Jewish state, the current Prime Minister of Israel will speak. That is part of his moral obligation to be the leader of the one and only Jewish state. And I felt very strongly about it.

The difference between that and the Abraham Accords or the historic things that have happened with the recognition of Jerusalem or the recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel sovereignty…Things with the Obama administration, like the MOU [$38B US aid package to Israel in 2016] that we were able to achieve, despite the disagreements that we had on policy, long-term military assistance…The difference is that the speech was only dependent on us. The Abraham Accords depend on partners willing to take that step […] What is the purest, in my view, meaning of sovereignty, is to use a voice when we have it.

What you’re saying is also that it is symbolically the most powerful moment for you here for the reasons you laid out, which I understand.

I’ll tell you something else. I don’t think people realize the Abraham Accords [almost] didn’t happen, in my view.

Without that speech, they would not have happened five years later. And when the Prime Minister made that speech, people in the region and I won’t say who… reached out to him pretty quickly and said ‘thank you for speaking for us as well.’ And that speech convinced our Arab neighbors that we were prepared to stand, even if we have to stand alone. In fact, the prime minister said that in his speech, that Israel will stand, even if it has to stand alone. He didn’t think we’d have to stand alone…but he said so.  And I didn’t realize, I must admit, that that was an unintended positive consequence of that speech. When I was thinking about the speech, I didn’t appreciate the impact that would have on the Arab world. But for the Arab world, that speech for them was a bit like Israel’s declaration of independence from America. […]

Yes, it’s especially interesting to me, because I know that you wanted Arab representatives in Congress to listen to the Prime Minister, and they declined to join. So it’s interesting that they weren’t there, 

But, boy, did they listen.

Well, but that’s super interesting. And you yourself weren’t aware it was saying to them ‘we actually are just going to damn do it.’ And that made a big difference. And that’s very interesting […]  So in my dozen or so years of knowing you, there are few people I’ve enjoyed arguing with as much as you, so I thank you for this conversation and for your graciousness, and for your participation in this conference.

Well, I will give you a compliment as well. I don’t know if you’re my favorite person to argue with, but you are a true journalist, which I think is a dying art. And somebody who lets the facts speak for themselves and tries to be very careful about it. […] I have more and more appreciation for that as years go by because there’s so few of you out there. You should try to get a minyan together – see if you can come up with 10! It’s a pleasure talking to you again, we should do it sooner and more frequently than once every two years.

A pleasure, pleasure.