Diplomatic Pouch / November 6, 2014
By Larry Luxner
The Donald and The Ronald both attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. One became a billionaire real-estate investor and TV personality; the other ended up as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Last month, some 300 Wharton alumni crowded into a ballroom at Washington’s Park Hyatt Hotel, where Ron Dermer made a pitch for investing in Israel, and Donald Trump quickly launched into his favorite subject: himself.
“When I want to prove how smart I am, I tell people I went to the Wharton School of Finance,” gloated the 68-year-old Trump, who isn’t exactly known for his humility.
Both he and Dermer were recognized for their achievements at the 44th Annual Joseph Wharton Award Dinner, held Oct. 22. Also honored were Jennifer Simpson, managing director of The Gladstone Companies, and Sanford A. Ibrahim, CEO of Radian Group Inc.
Alan Schlaifer, president of the Wharton Club of Washington, introduced Trump as guests were munching on their roasted-beet salad.
“There probably isn’t a living alumnus today who’s been such a strong advocate for the brand and the school that we love,” said Schlaifer, noting that Wharton has produced more than 92,000 alumni from 150 nations since its establishment in 1881.
Not one to disappoint, Trump thanked his alma mater for contributing to his success over the years.
“A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I’m very honorable,” he said, drawing laughter from an audience that knows only too well about the various controversies that have dogged Trump over the years — from his highly publicized divorces and bankruptcies to his repeated accusations that President Obama wasn’t really born in the United States.
“Wharton was a very special place. I’ve gone on to do well, starting in real estate. Then I wrote a book, ‘The Art of the Deal.’ That became the biggest-selling business book of all time,” he said, eliciting approving looks from his current wife, Melania, a former model from Slovenia. “And I’m building buildings all over the place.”
One of Trump’s latest projects is the conversion of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue into what he calls “a 300-room super luxury hotel” with retail shops and restaurants.
Dermer, 42, praised the orange-haired tycoon for inspiring him at an early age.
“Let’s face it, Wharton has a reputation. I thought it would prepare me for life in the Middle East,” said the Miami Beach native, who took over from Michael Oren as Israel’s ambassador here in July 2013. “The truth of the matter is, you’ve got to be a tough shark to survive in the Middle East. I wanted to go to Wharton after I read ‘The Art of the Deal.’ I was 16 when it came out. This is amazing, but I wanted to be his apprentice. Of course, that was before I actually saw the show.
“I really wanted to be an entrepreneur like Mr. Trump,” he continued. “At Wharton, I started a couple of businesses with a partner of mine, and Wharton actually gave us office space. We were 18 years old. They would wheel us out whenever alumni came to town. And we were pretty successful. In the end, my entrepreneurial instincts landed me in the start-up nation, Israel. I don’t know if Wharton prepared me for being an ambassador — because the discourse wasn’t overly diplomatic — but it did teach me that competition breeds excellence.”
Dermer spoke on the same day an Arab man intentionally drove his car into a crowd of Israelis at a Jerusalem train station, killing a three-month-old baby and injuring seven others. Also, earlier that day, a Canadian convert to Islam shot a soldier to death and stormed the Parliament building in Ottawa.
Noting those two terrorist attacks, he praised fellow award recipient S.A. Ibrahim — originally from India — for his support of Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue through organizations such as the Philadelphia Anti-Defamation League and the New Jersey-based Center for Interreligious Understanding.
“We have a problem with militant Islam. And the key to winning this struggle is for courageous Muslims to speak out, and Mr. Ibrahim is one of those Muslims. I’m deeply honored to share the stage with you tonight.”
Dermer, who graduated from Wharton in 1993, offered his fellow alumni a piece of advice: invest in Israel before it’s too late.
“The ability to innovate and create conceptual products is what’s going to drive growth for First World economies, and Israel is one of the most innovative countries in the world — in water, in agriculture, in medicine and in science,” he said. “In cyber, for example, we are one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population, but we account for 11 percent of the global investment in cyber. That means Israel is punching 110 times above its weight.”
Dermer urged his fellow Wharton grads to consider bankrolling Israel’s nascent energy sector, following reports of potentially huge gas deposits in the Mediterranean.
“Just off our shores, we have some very big gas fields, and we’re starting to exploit them. That means the best gas technology in the world will come out of Israel within a decade,” he said. “Before, we had a lot of brains but no gas. Now we’ve got brains and gas. So if you’re in that business, get in now while it’s cheap.”
Companies that invest in Israel “aren’t doing it because they’re Zionists,” Dermer added.
“They’re doing it because they want access to Israeli innovation, and because they want to make a lot of money,” he said. “I know making money has never been important for Wharton students, but for those of you who can find a way to overcome our school’s reputation for altruism, I would tell you to invest in Israel. You won’t regret it.”
By the way, Dermer wasn’t the only ambassador in the room; also in attendance were fellow Wharton grads José E. Cuísia of the Philippines (WG ’70); Emanuel González-Revilla of Panama (WG ’88) and Román Macaya of Costa Rica (WG ‘98).
In addition, two ambassadors who didn’t go to Wharton were at the dinner: Elin Suleymanov of Azerbaijan, home of the luxury 33-floor Baku Trump Tower, and Trinidad & Tobago’s Neil Parsan, whose embassy is hosting a Wharton reception on Nov. 20.