In an unprecedented move, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer is going to Las Vegas this weekend to participate in a partisan political meeting and fundraiser at the Venetian luxury hotel owned by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the GOP's largest contributor.
It may be unprecedented — senior Israeli and American diplomats who have served in both countries have said they can't recall a sitting ambassador engaging in such partisan activity – but not surprising when one considers the players. Adelson and his wife donated upwards of $100 million to largely unsuccessful Republican candidates in the 2012 and he is a major financial backer of Benjamin Netanyahu; Ambassador Dermer was a longtime Republican neocon and political operative before making aliyah and becoming a Netanyahu protégé.
Dermer continued playing in Republican politics even while working for the prime minister. In 2012 he helped "mastermind" GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's trip to Israel along with his friend Dan Senor, a Romney campaign advisor, according to Tablet magazine. Events included high-level meetings and a major fundraiser attended by Adelson.
Dermer is speaking on Saturday – something that has riled some Orthodox Jews – to the spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, four days of Obama bashing with time out for golf, poker, Scotch tasting and politics. It is being held at Adelson's luxury Venetian resort in Las Vegas, with a big dinner in the hanger where Adelson keeps his fleet of private jets. Adelson is an RJC director.
A parade of presidential wannabes and other party bigwigs will be attending what has been dubbed the Adelson Primary, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Each will get a private meeting with the billionaire. Also expected this weekend are former UN ambassador John Bolton, who has presidential delusions that aren't being taken seriously, former Vice President Dick Cheney and assorted other lesser luminaries.
The Las Vegas get together is a chance for the RJC to raise money and demonstrate to its big givers its ability to get political stars to show up. Amb. Dermer is a valuable "get" for such an event.
I asked senior American and Israeli diplomats about the propriety of an ambassador participating in such an overtly partisan event.
A former Israeli ambassador said, "Such an event is a no no. A wise professional diplomat would have avoided it if he wanted to stay in the Ministry." (It is doubtful Dermer sees his future in the ministry, where, incidentally, everyone is on strike this week.)
A retired senior US diplomat who has served in Israel told me, "Dermer is stepping way over the line, however much he tries to rationalize it." It is one thing to meet with opposition leaders, it's done all the time, but very different to participate in partisan political fundraisers, he added.
A longtime pro-Israel activist in Washington said he cannot recall any other time an Israeli ambassador got so directly involved in partisan American politics on either side.
Several present and former diplomats told me any responsible government would recall such a diplomat.
But Dermer may not have had much choice. He was summoned not only by one of the richest Jews in the world who also happens to be his boss's top supporter and the publisher of the biggest paper in Israel, Israel Hayom, also a Bibi booster.
Dermer is not a professional diplomat nor is he, like his predecessor, Amb. Michael Oren, a respected scholar and author. Dermer's background is in politics. He has been Netanyahu's protégé and close advisor, earning him the moniker "Bibi's Brain," and the PM's liaison with Republican politicians.
The Obama administration did not object to his appointment last year and Democrats on Capitol Hill are loathe to publicly criticize an Israeli ambassador, but privately they are concerned that, as with Netanyahu himself in the 1990s, Dermer's role will be to work closely with Republicans to organize opposition to the policies of the Democratic administration.
The RJC meetings in Las Vegas are not only an opportunity for Adelson and other Republican Jewish big givers to take the measure of the possible presidential contenders, but it is also an opportunity for Adelson himself to do some lobbying. He wants to Republican National Committee to hold its 2016 convention in Las Vegas. He is running into resistance from religious and social conservatives who worry about how celebrating in Sin City it will play with the GOP base.
Adelson's top priority is a ban on online gambling. Legislation to do that was drafted with the help of Adelson's lobbyist and introduced this week by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who, by sheer coincidence, has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Adelson and his family.
Adelson is betting on Graham and others who come through Las Vegas looking for his support to support his legislation. Sounds like a safe bet.
This is not the first time Amb. Dermer has spoken an RJC event nor is he the first Israeli ambassador to do so, as incorrectly reported above. He participated in a joint meeting of the RJC and its Democratic counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council last month. His predecessor, Ambassador Michael Oren, also spoke at the 2009 Washington Conference of the NJDC. What makes Dermer's appearance unusual, however, is that, unlike his predecessors, he has a long history of involvement in partisan Republican politics.