In the latest of what will surely be many diplomatic slights between the Israeli and US governments, National Security Advisor Susan Rice reportedly said something less than glowing about the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer. The leader of a major American Jewish organization reportedly asked Rice, in a private meeting, why she had not met with Dermer since he'd taken office in September 2013.
"He never asked to meet me," she responded. "Besides, I understood that he's too busy traveling to Sheldon Adelson's events in Las Vegas."
Adelson is a wealthy conservative fundraiser known for his right-wing activism on issues related to Israel. The quote is news in Israel and on right-leaning US sites, where it's taken as further evidence that the Obama administration is hostile to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But I'd make three points about this minor controversy and its larger significance.
1) You might be surprised to learn that Rice actually outranks the Israeli ambassador within the US government
In fact, it turns out that Rice is quite senior and that Dermer is not a member of the US government at all! It is Dermer's job to reach out to Rice, not the other way around. The fact that he has not is, to be frank, an insult to the Obama administration. And Rice is correct to be insulted that anyone would imply that it's her job to reach out so a much-lower-ranking official and foreign diplomat, a feeling that comes through in her sarcastic answer.
The fact that Dermer has not reached out to Rice is a reminder of how much the Netanyahu government is driving the US-Israel discord. The fact that people are blaming Rice for Dermer's slight is a sign of how screwy our standards can be when it comes to the politics of US-Israel relations.
2) Rice is also correct to be offended that a foreign diplomat is more engaged with the opposition party than with the sitting government
Ever since Netanyahu's May 2011 trip to Washington, when he publicly lectured Obama at a press conference and then gave a speech to Congress slamming the president, his government has been getting awfully involved in domestic US politics. Typically that has meant undermining the Obama administration while cultivating ties with Republicans and conservative donors like Adelson. That's been seen as Netanyahu campaigning for Republicans to unseat the Democrats — an awfully provocative interference in an ally's internal politics — or at least trying to use domestic American politics as a cudgel against Obama.
So when Rice says that Ambassador Dermer is more interested in meeting Sheldon Adelson than her, what she's observing is that the Israeli government is more interested in undermining the Obama administration than working with it.
3) Bad news for Rice: the US does this sort of meddling in foreign politics all the time, and other countries hate it, too
American ambassadors are pretty well-known for meeting opposition parties, activists, and civil society groups, and meeting with them often. This is often perceived, not without reason, as working with those groups to the point of meddling. In Egypt, for example, American diplomats cultivated such close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood before it won the presidency that there are still widespread conspiracy theories that the US effectively installed them in power. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin watches the Americans meeting with democracy activists and sees a conspiracy to unseat him.
And, yes, the US does this in Israel as well: in Israel's 1996 and 1999 elections, the Clinton administration implicitly signaled its preferred candidates. Netanyahu ran in both elections and he was Clinton's choice in neither. Netanyahu won in '96 but lost office in '99 and perhaps today remembers the impact that foreign involvement can have in a country's political process. This doesn't make Dermer's actions any less undiplomatic — going a year without meeting with Susan Rice is a pretty big slap — but his meetings with Sheldon Adelson are a pretty classic play from the American playbook.