INTERVIEW: Dan Shapiro Reflects on Time as Ambassador to Israel
Photo by Haim Zach / GPO
WASHINGTON – Few officials enjoyed popularity ratings among Israelis as Dan Shapiro did while serving as President Obama’s US Ambassador to Israel. While 80% of Israelis in a 2015 poll disapproved of the President’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal, Shapiro was still widely respected. Naftali Bennett, leader of the hawkish Jewish Home party, wrote on Twitter, “Toda, Dan. Amb. Shapiro has been a great friend of Israel. He connected to us. Even when we disagreed he was decent and warm. Thanks!” The former US envoy appeared on Israeli comedy shows speaking in fluent Hebrew and participated in the International Bible Contest or Chiddon Hatanach.
Shapiro began his term as U.S. Ambassador to Israel in 2011 and he continued in the position until the inauguration of President Donald Trump last month. Working on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, the Illinois native previously served as Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council. Shapiro has another claim to fame: he was the only US official who attended each and every meeting between Obama and Netanyahu from 2009-2017.
In an interview with Jewish Insider only two weeks after leaving his role as US Envoy, Shapiro highlighted the robust security ties that the two countries during the past eight years. At the same time, he expressed frustration with certain statements from Netanyahu’s office asserting that there was “ironclad” proof the U.S. was behind the December UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. “There was no evidence, none was ever presented and that’s because none exists,” Shapiro bluntly said.
When asked if there was any US responsibility for the distrust between Netanyahu and Obama from 2009-2017, Shapiro emphasized that Washington was a “faithful ally” while only noting that an Obama visit to Israel earlier in his presidential term would have been beneficial. In contrast to former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Shapiro has remained steadfastly loyal to the Obama Administration’s legacy after leaving his post and was unwilling to offer any substantive critique of Obama’s policy towards Israel.
Responding to the Trump Administration’s list of 78 under-reported terror attacks, Shapiro critiqued the White House statement, “If one were to make a list of terrorist attacks that didn’t get much attention outside of the immediate area where they occurred, it would be hard not to include attacks against Israelis on that list.”
The former US envoy also voiced discomfort with Netanyahu’s tweet supporting a US wall on the Mexico border. “It surprised me that he chose to weigh in publicly on an issue that was very divisive and controversial even in a partisan sense in the US, including with some key constituencies that he does care about including Latinos and maybe other progressives.”
Shapiro reflected on the complexity of the nine-month long negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry, during 2013-2014 as a key period of his tenure. Shapiro noted, “It’s true that the President (Obama) had asked Abu Mazen for a response to a particular document in their meeting in March of 2014, and President Abbas did not respond to him.”
Ambassador Dan Shapiro: “It was generally reported in the media and discussed among observers, even informed observers, as if it were episodes of a soap opera. There was great attention paid to the personalities and the personal dynamic between the two, there was an assumption of ill-will and bad faith and true dislike, one for the other among many observers. Now, I was present for every one of their meetings over eight years, I think I was the only person on the US side for who that was true and I can tell you that they had their disagreements. They certainly had some differences of political philosophy and personal background and of course, everybody knows about the policy disagreements on the Iran deal, sometimes issues related to settlements and sometimes those disagreements got very public and even personal and had a political component to them. I don’t pretend those didn’t exist.”
“At the same time, during the eight years they worked together, the US-Israel relationship strengthened significantly in many areas, in our military and security partnership, culminating in the $38 billion MOU that was signed last year including the advancement of the F-35 program, the missile defense programs, joint training between our militaries, incredible sharing between our intelligence services, extensive diplomatic coordination to deal with the various crises, instabilities and threats around the Middle East. And the economic relationship as well. In many cases, the people-to-people relationship. Those same things happened during the period that is often described as these two leaders who didn’t get along or like each other and my claim is the two of them deserve just as much credit for those advancements and the strengthening of the relationship as they are associated with the disagreements. And I believe because of all that progress that I described resulted from decisions they made together in very close, intimate, respectful, cordial, professional conversations sometimes disagreements were also aired there but they didn’t let those disagreements get in the way of advancing the common interest they saw to get our nations closer and get our relationship stronger. I hope and believe that when historians look at the period with some distance from the day-to-day, that will be recognized and they will get the credit they deserve for strengthening the partnership just as much as they will also be associated with their very well known disagreements.”
JI: Was the Obama Administration ever at fault during the past eight years when US-Israel ties encountered difficult moments?
Shapiro: “I haven’t really sat down to sketch out my own account of those eight years and so I am not sure I am ready to identify specific areas where I might differ with the choices we made. Obviously, in any human relationship and it’s also true in relationships between nations, disagreements have two sides to them so I don’t claim that we did everything perfectly or that we always communicated our positions as clearly or as timely a way as we might have, that might have helped. Overall, I think we were responsible, I know we were faithful allies and absolutely faithful to our commitments to Israel’s security and to the partnership but obviously sometimes communication, sometimes personalities and sometimes assumptions about the motivations or the actions of the other side that are not fully informed by the kind of conversations that might provide better context can contribute.”
“I would say I had hoped that President Obama could have visited Israel earlier in his term, I think many people did. When he came here in 2013, he was received with tremendous warmth and affection by the Israeli people. He demonstrated in very tangible and accessible ways, his own love of Israel, commitment to Israel and for a least a while afterwards it significantly changed his image among Israelis. Many Israelis said to me afterwards, ‘I still disagree with him on one policy issue or another but I know that he is a friend. I can tell he has our best interests at heart. And I know that’s what motivates him.’ Of course, that is true. But we couldn’t bring him here every three months or six months to reinforce that in-person. That was in early 2013. I think there were opportunities in the first term maybe just before the peace talks were launched in the late summer of 2010 when a visit could have been very influential and there might have been an opportunity when he was traveling to Iraq to stop here. It didn’t work out. I don’t actually agree with the criticism that some have that it was a mistake for him personally not to come here immediately following his Cairo speech in 2009 but I will say that we always assumed that he would have an opportunity to come in the context of advancing peace talks much much sooner than it turned out to be the case.”
JI: Did Israel accept the Kerry parameters in 2014?
Shapiro: “The proposal that Secretary Kerry assembled following several months of talks that he led in that period was for the US to produce a document that we would call a framework which would describe principles or parameters for talks on final status. And for the parties to say that they would negotiate on that basis with reservations. It was built into our discussions with both sides that the best we would get from them is not an endorsement of the framework but a willingness to negotiate either on its basis even less than that. In the aftermath of us putting it out and to assert that they had reservations about it. We knew very well that the Israeli side had reservations of course the Palestinians had at least as many reservations. And so, it never advanced quite to the stage of seeking acceptance of the framework. It’s true that the President had asked Abu Mazen for a response to a particular document in their meeting in March of 2014, and President Abbas did not respond to him. But, it was also true that we were not yet working on the exact same document with both sides and even with the documents that had gaps between them, the best we were going to get was a willingness to negotiate with reservations on the framework so I don’t think the framework was fully gelled itself. I don’t think either side had given full acceptance to it, and the closest we were going to get to that and we might have been able to with Israel is the willingness to negotiate with reservations?”
JI: Which side was most responsible for the breakdown in the 2014 talks?
Shapiro: “I don’t know that apportioning blame in percentage terms is a very meaningful way of understanding it. The talks failed. The talks failed in significant measure not because what was happening in the talks but because there was a great deal of mistrust between the parties and between the leaders. That was true from the beginning. The odds of overcoming that gap in trust and maybe that gap in vision about what the talks were designed to produce was built in from the start and so the chances of overcoming that were always very low. I think it was worth the effort because the outcome is so necessary and important to our interests, Israel’s future, and Palestinian aspirations. But, that doesn’t mean the chances were very high. There were definitely actions taken by both sides during the talks that undermined the atmosphere of those talks including announcements of settlement approvals and construction by the Israeli side including hostile and even inciting statements by the Palestinian side.”
“There was also a built in landmine waiting for us in the ninth month because of a misunderstanding right when the talks were launched regarding how many and which Palestinian or Israeli-Arab prisoners were going to be released in the fourth batch of prisoner releases at the end of April 2014. And so knowing that the disagreement persisted about whether not Israeli-Arab prisoners would be included which the Palestinians demanded and the Israeli side objected to, both sides held back from negotiating in earnest and positioned themselves throughout the period to be able to blame the other side for when the talks failed. They were unsuccessful for many, many reasons, many parties including ourselves perhaps and the choices we made contributed to them but I think the overriding problem was and remains deep, deep distrust between the leaderships and big gaps between their visions and on willingness in that context to take the kind of decisions on both sides that would be necessary to reach an agreement.”
JI: Some perceived Netanyahu to favor Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 election campaign. Did you view the Prime Minister’s actions as problematic?
Shapiro: “I didn’t personally see it as an endorsement of Governor Romney. I think there is an appropriate way for the Prime Minister of Israel to engage with and meet with both candidates in an election and demonstrate a commitment to the bipartisan nature of the relationship. I am not sure if it was handled exactly as carefully as it could have been to leave that impression. I think there were perhaps in Washington more than from where I sat in Tel Aviv impressions that there may be other activities underway in the US media and perhaps other US political circles that might have been intended to influence the election. I don’t know if that’s true. I really could not observe that in any significant degree where I sat.”
“I will say that my basic view even if things were not always handled as carefully as they might have been was that it would have been pretty stupid for any Israeli official to believe that Israel, a small country far away from the US was going to become the determine factor in an election of a country of 300 million people that was going to be determined on jobs, health care, and the future of the American economy and the demographic evolutions of American society. I don’t think the Israeli leadership is stupid so I give them enough credit to not believe they would have been able to pull those kinds of strings and actually influence the outcome of the election.”
JI: The Israeli Prime Minister’s office said following the December UN Security Council vote that Jerusalem had “ironclad” evidence that Washington was behind the resolution. Since you are no longer a US government official, do you believe this claim is accurate?
Shapiro: “No, there was no evidence, none was ever presented and that’s because none exists. That was an assertion made without evidence and it will remain an assertion made without evidence. We had known for months and discussed openly with the Israeli government that the Palestinians were likely to try and advance a settlement resolution at the Security Council and there were other countries on the Council who would be interested to carry that agenda forward so we knew very well that we might have to deal with it. We were quite open with other countries about our willingness to veto a resolution that was not within the parameters of anything that we could support as we did in 2011. But, at no time did we sponsor, propose, advocate, draft, lead or any other way take the initiative on the resolution in a way that Prime Minister described. I am not sure why he made those assertions after the fact, but they are certainly not the case.”
“In the end, we had to make a decision about how to deal with a resolution that was drafted in a more balanced way than the one we had vetoed in 2011 including references to violence, incitement, terrorism from the Palestinian side which didn’t exist in the 2011 resolution, a resolution which was not exactly our language in every respect on the issue of settlements but was broadly consistent with US policy on the issue of settlements for 50 years and with 40 previous Security Council resolutions that had passed in every Administration since the 1970s so there was nothing particularly groundbreaking or new about the US and Israel finding themselves in disagreement around a Security Council resolution that had dealt with the issue of settlements that happened many times before. It happened here. It also took place in context including Secretary Kerry described in his speech, strong advocacy from leading Israeli ministers and other political figures to begin annexing part of the West Bank to legalize illegal outposts to build without restriction in all parts of the West Bank. But, in the end the decision was only made right when the issue came up for a vote which is further proof and evidence that there was no American hidden hand directing the resolution from an earlier stage.”
JI: How will David Friedman’s appointment as US Ambassador to Israel influence domestic Israeli politics?
Shapiro: “I don’t know Mr. Friedman, but I assume that any Ambassador appointed by the US government will implement the policy that is made in Washington. That certainly was true in my experience that Ambassadors come with their own perspectives and their own history and maybe even their own views but in the end those are not as important, in fact they’re much less relevant than faithful implementation of the policy that’s made in Washington so I think that is likely to be true of any Ambassador including Mr. Friedman.”
JI: Will Netanyahu move to the right because of Trump’s more hawkish Israel policy?
Shapiro: “I think the Prime Minister will do as any Israeli Prime Minister does which is try to ensure a stable coalition, try to carry out his agenda which sometimes requires horse trading within the coalition and at the same time have as close and productive working relationship with the President of the United States as possible so exactly how to balance the different factors if he feels a new Administration gives him additional room in one direction or if he feels pressure from members of his coalition or he simply has his own agenda that he wants to carry out is very hard for me to speculate about and I think it’s best to give it time for it to play out.”
JI: How do you believe Naftali Bennett will navigate the new dynamics with President Trump?
Shapiro: “It’s clear that there are members of the coalition who since the election have been hopeful that a new Administration will have policies that are more in sync with their own thinking including settlement expansion or even measures likes annexation and there were a lot of comments to that effect in November and December even before the Administration had taken office. Now that it has been made clear by the new Administration that they are not prepared yet to articulate their policy until after some conversations between the President and Prime Minister and the somewhat ambiguous statement they made on settlements a few days ago, I think it may give some Israelis pause to believe they can correctly assume or correctly predict exactly what the policy will be. One thing that will be interesting will be to see how the Administration responds to the settlement regularization bill that passed last night in the Knesset so far the response has been no substantive response but that could be a signal when they respond substantively which direction they plan to go.”
JI: How will the Trump-Netanyahu ties impact /US support for Israel among non-Trump voters?
Shapiro: “One of the things President Obama always placed a high priority on when he was president was maintaining a bipartisan support for Israel and that at times meant making it clear to members of his own party that his support for Israel and its security and our commitment to Israel was sacrosanct, even during periods of disagreement so I think that a similar commitment by the new Administration to maintaining bipartisan support for Israel is a healthy one for the US-Israel relationship, which of course has to be sustained through changes of Administration and party control with both countries. I hope very much that President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will bear that in mind as they conduct a relationship, it’s important to find ways of inclusion for all constituencies in support of the US-Israel relationship.”
JI: How did you interpret Netanyahu’s tweet supporting Trump’s wall on America’s Mexican border?
Shapiro: “It surprised me that he chose to weigh in publicly on an issue that was very divisive and controversial even in a partisan sense in the US, including with some key constituencies that he does care about including Latinos and maybe other progressives. It suggested to me that there was some pressure placed on the Israeli government to provide support for that aspect of President Trump’s agenda and since there’s no direct Israeli interest in US policy on our southern border, I found that surprising.”
JI: The Trump Administration introduced a list 78 terror attacks that were under-reported. Were you surprised that Israel was omitted from this list?
Shapiro: “I think if one were to make a list of terrorist attacks that didn’t get much attention outside of the immediate area where they occurred, it would be hard not to include attacks against Israelis on that list because there have been quite a number that have received scant attention outside of Israel. I think some of the other attacks listed on that list have indeed received a lot more coverage than some of the ones in Israel.”
JI: Do you believe the controversial “Regularization Law” passed by the Knesset on Monday would have occurred if Obama were still President?
Shapiro: “It’s very hard to speculate on a hypothetical. The legislation was advancing in the Knesset while he was President. At various times, its progress was slowed or stopped and it’s hard to know whether the pressures that were pushing that bill would have been successful pushing it through even over the more clearly stated opposition of the Obama Administration than happened this week.”