Zalman Shoval’s Israel: From Ben-Gurion to Bibi

Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. calls Netanyahu the most statesman-like leader in Israel’s history. But he posits that relations with the U.S. were just as good, if not better, under Ehud Barak.

Few in the world have greater insight into the history of the U.S.- Israel relationship than Zalman Shoval. The 89-year-old former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and former member of Knesset is likely the only man alive today who has worked with every Israeli administration from David Ben-Gurion through Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Shoval and I sat down on the sidelines of the Herzliya Conference last week to discuss the relationship between Israel and the United States, and where it might be heading.

While Netanyahu and President Donald Trump have a close relationship, Shoval said, it’s not exactly unprecedented. And, more importantly, he said, Israel must be prepared for whatever happens in the 2020 presidential elections — whether Trump is reelected or replaced by a Democratic candidate. 

“The Jewish community in America, which has historically been more supportive of the Democrats, is not enthusiastic” about the chummy relationship between Trump and Netanyahu, Shoval related. “The majority of the Jewish community in America has a visceral, antagonistic attitude” toward the current U.S. president. What is desperately needed, he said, is “responsible Jewish leadership, which will be able to separate their own domestic political concerns from the question of ‘Do we support what this government, this administration, has done for Israel?’”

On the American political spectrum, Shoval sees a realignment in both the Democratic and Republican parties that, he thinks, should worry the Jewish community. 

“The Republican Party is moving away from its traditional conservatism,” he said. “It’s becoming a more populist party. The Democratic Party is also moving away from its centrist position; moving to the left.”

Shoval referenced several “new members of Congress who make most of the noise” as concerning, but said they are still in the minority of Democratic lawmakers. 

“But the fact that, in [the first Democratic presidential primary] debate, most of the candidates had to give at least lip service to these views, means that whoever becomes president, if they win, if Biden becomes president, he will not be able to ignore those voices in Congress.”

Of particular concern to Shoval is the prospect of the U.S. re-entering the 2015 Iran deal. He’s most alarmed that it’s becoming an election issue, with some Democratic candidates expressing a desire to rejoin the Iran deal. “That means they are disregarding Israel’s vital interests, its vital concerns,” he tells me.

Zalman Shoval (right), meets with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (center) and Congressman Robert Kasdan in New York in 1990.

Shoval has been involved in public and political affairs in Israel for more than six decades, beginning as a cadet in the Foreign Ministry in 1955. After helping found the Bank of Jerusalem in the 1960s, he returned to public service in 1970, entering the Knesset with the resignation of David Ben-Gurion from their nascent National List party. Shoval served as an MK until 1983 in several parties. In 1988 he returned to the Knesset with Likud, but resigned in 1990 when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir appointed him ambassador to the United States, a role he continued into Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Shoval back to Washington as Israel’s ambassador, where he served into Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s term. 

Shoval’s view of the relationship between the two nations is long and notably optimistic. 

“If you look at the history of Israeli-American relations from 1948 until now, [throughout] different administrations, some more friendly, some less — the relationship has been going up from year to year, from administration to administration,” he said. “Not in all fields… but if you look at the military cooperation, at the economic cooperation, so on and so forth — I think the way has been up.”

While many point to the close Trump-Netanyahu partnership as the peak in U.S.-Israel relations, Shoval isn’t wholly convinced. 

“I think the relationship with Ehud Barak as prime minister and President [Bill] Clinton was probably just as close,” he argues. “Perhaps not always publicly to the same extent, but it was very, very close and I can bear evidence of that.”

Zalman Shoval looks on as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (right) shakes hands with US National Security Advisor Sandy Berger in Washington in 1999.

Since leaving his post as ambassador in 2000, Shoval has continued to be active in the Likud Party, and served as a foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu. In 2009, the prime minister asked him to head an advisory forum on U.S.- Israel relations, and last year he published a memoir about his experiences, titled “Jerusalem and Washington: A Life in Politics and Diplomacy.” 

“I support Bibi very strongly,” Shoval said last week. “Not because I’m enthusiastic about each and every thing he does, but as a student of history, and as someone who has participated in Israel’s history from Ben-Gurion until Bibi — I’ve worked with all of those people from Ben Gurion to Bibi — I see Bibi as the most statesmanlike… Netanyahu is the best possible choice at this time.”

But Shoval is still critical of the prime minister, particularly in his handling of relations with Diaspora Jewry. The former ambassador said he’s “very unhappy with the way this government and previous governments are acting with regards to the Western Wall and things like that.”

“When we have declared — the Knesset has declared, the government has declared Israel is the Jewish nation state” he expounded, “that includes Jews in America, the Jews in France, and that means we cannot ignore them. And that is what Israel must rectify, and correct its ways.”

While Shoval seems comfortable discussing a successor to Trump, he’s less forthcoming on the potential next Israeli prime minister. The career diplomat said he doesn’t see a natural replacement to Netanyahu, from inside or outside of the Likud. 

“One day, Netanyahu will get out of politics for one reason or another,” he posited. “I hope there will be others who will be able to follow him, but at this present time, I don’t see anyone more appropriate for Israel’s diplomatic prospects on the one hand, and dangers on the other hand.”

But one thing is for sure — he’s not running for the job. 

“I am not a candidate!” he joked. “I mean for me, even [Joe] Biden and [Bernie] Sanders are youngsters.”

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