An Interview with Daniel B. Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel

Israel ShapiroDaniel B. Shapiro was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Israel on July 8, 2011. Before arriving in Tel Aviv, Shapiro was Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Staff at the White House, where he advised President Barack Obama and other senior U.S. officials on U.S. policy in the region. Prior to serving in the White House, he was Senior Policy Adviser for the Obama for America presidential campaign. He also advised the campaign on Middle East policy and led then-Senator Obama’s visit to Israel in July 2008. Shapiro has spent much of his career working in senior positions in the United States Congress, with a focus on Middle East policy. 

The Politic: Why did you choose to accept President Obama’s nomination to serve as the United States’ 19th ambassador to the State of Israel?

First, it’s a high honor to represent the United States anywhere, and I’m very proud to serve my country and President Obama. I began working on Middle Eastern issues on Obama’s first presidential campaign and helped bring him to Israel during the campaign. Then, I worked at the National Security Council as the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa for the first year and a half or so of the administration. Having arrived at the NSC in that particular job, I more or less reached what I thought was my dream job when I arrived in Washington eight years ago, to work at the White House on Middle East peace efforts.

Working for the president was a great thrill and a great honor. There was nothing like working with him, the Secretary of State, the Vice President, and the National Security Advisor to promote Middle East peace, especially since it was a time of significant changes in the Arab world. It was only after a while in that job that it crossed my mind that I might serve as ambassador to Israel. I’ve traveled here many, many times in my previous role supporting our special envoys and Middle East efforts. When I knew there was an opening coming for this post, I started to think about how I might make a contribution.

I got to spend a lot of time here in my younger days. I was here as a child with my family during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I returned twice as a student after high school and for a full year of college at Hebrew University. I spent all of my college and graduate school studies focused on the history and politics of the Middle East. My focus was on Israel, the US-Israel relationship, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

When I started thinking about the contribution I might make as Ambassador, it began to seem like a good fit for me and the president. I think the president saw somebody who had a close relationship with him, the Israeli prime minister, and the embassy officials of both governments, due to the previous work I had done. I was somebody who had really deep ties to Israeli society and could connect not just on a government-to-government level, but also with the Israel people. Being a Hebrew speaker gave me an additional ability to connect through the media and do a lot of public outreach. So when the president asked me to be Ambassador, it was an easy call, not only for the professional opportunity it provided but also for personal opportunities. This is a country that both my wife and I have spent time in and have strong support for. We had spent some time here over the years with our children, so it was also a very special opportunity for them.

The Politic: As an American Jew representing the United States in Israel, have you ever felt complex loyalties or convictions, particularly when America and Israel disagree on policy? 

I’ve never had that problem. I know exactly what I’m doing here and why I’m doing it. I’m here to represent the United States of America, and I’m very proud to do it. That is always my assignment and my priority. It is absolutely the case that I feel a strong connection and affinity. I have connections in Israel and I feel no conflict about this. Obviously, anybody who has spent time here as a young person will certainly feel that sense [of complexity], but it never gets in the way of the responsibility that I will uphold as the ambassador.

I’m the third Jewish ambassador to Israel to serve for the United States, and I know that my predecessors in that role — Martin Indyk, who is now our special envoy, and Dan Kurtzer — were certainly asked if there was any kind of conflict. The truth is, I’m very rarely asked that question by an Israeli or an American. I think that people in both countries have gotten used to the idea of an American Jewish ambassador, which can make pretty great opportunities to form connections. Those connections can help me communicate in a very close way with the Israeli public.

The Politic: What do you think is the most important asset that the United States provides Israel, and on the flip side, what do you think is the most significant burden that the United States puts on Israel?

This is a relationship that’s based on two primary things. The common interests we share as two allies feature a range of opportunities and challenges, especially difficulties in the Middle East, which is a region that has always had some degree of turmoil, particularly now. We share mutual interests, as we are facing many of the same threats: the threat of nuclear weapons of mass destruction including the possibility – which we are trying to prevent – of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, the threat of terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al-Qaeda that are trying to harm people and our allies. The instability of the region creates orbit space for terrorist organizations to operate. So those are all common strategic interests that we share.

The other area is our common values like democracy. We both place a great priority on freedom, opportunities for all of our citizens, building full relations with others, and open societies that allow people to prosper. Because we’re together on that basis, I would say that it’s a very mutually beneficial relationship. The United States obviously provides significant military assistance programs to Israel: three billion dollars annually for military financing and advances in our missile defense programs, including the successful Iron Dome system.

Israel flagsBut we also gain a lot from this relationship. We do joint training with the Israeli military, as the Israeli Special Forces are among the best in the world. Our Special Forces benefit from and enjoy the opportunity to train with their Israeli colleagues, and learn from them about the campaigns they’re combatting against terrorist organizations. We both have very extensive intelligence capabilities, but different and complementary ones, so that by pooling our respective resources and techniques, we’re actually able to create an intelligence picture that is greater than the sum of two parts.

So this is a relationship that I think provides a few benefits to both countries. There are additional opportunities like a burgeoning economic relationship, which I think is rising as the third pillar of this relationship, as there are great opportunities developing in the high tech industries, such as clean energy, fiber technologies, and water technologies. These are all areas that have lifted our trade relationship to a 40-billion-dollar trade relationship annually, and it’s rising all the time, particularly as the technology communities in the two countries are in a deeply synergistic relationship with one another. To me, this is a relationship of significant mutual benefit.

The Politic: Iran dominates the Middle East news today with the ongoing nuclear threat, potential negotiations, and America and Israel’s security interests at different red lines. How does the U.S. balance the security needs of Israel – arguably its most important Middle Eastern ally – with its own diplomatic calculations?  

We have spent more time trying to coordinate our positions, policy, and preparations regarding Iran than on any other issue, because it’s the highest priority issue. There is no question that we have an absolutely prominent understanding of the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, a country that has threatened Israel with its destruction and supported terrorist organizations that have posed a threat to our forces and our allies in the region. An Iran with nuclear weapons will certainly spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. That’s an unacceptable threat that we can’t allow to exist. So we have a common understanding of that threat and a common principle that we are determined to do everything possible to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. President Obama has been absolutely clear that he will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

We also have a common intelligence picture about what is happening inside the Iranian nuclear program. As a result of our intelligence cooperation, our policymakers share a unified set of facts as they consider these difficult challenges. We also have a common approach, which is to use the maximum pressure through sanctions and diplomacy to try to steer Iran off of the path it appears to be on toward acquiring a nuclear weapon. The United States has led the world in imposing sanctions on Iran with the support of Israel and many partners in Europe and Asia, and they have been the toughest sanctions that any regime has ever faced. They have cost Iran tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue, access to financial markets, and international transportation networks.  They have created significant economic distress to Iran, which we believe has also produced political change: a new government and a new willingness to come to the negotiation table.

So the sanctions have been effective in bringing Iran back to the negotiating table, which leads outwardly to a different approach to those negotiations. The United States and Israel both agree that this apparent new approach by Iran needs to be tested in a relatively short period of time to determine if it’s possible to achieve a diplomatic solution that will reassure the international community that Iran is in compliance with all of its nuclear obligations. We are now in between the first and second rounds of these “Five plus Four” negotiations: both governments believe that if these negotiations hold, they have the prospect of reaching an agreement with Iran in a fairly short period of time. We both agree that it is preferable to resolve this Iranian situation diplomatically. If that can’t happen, we have one more common principle, which is that all other options are on the table, because we are absolutely determined to achieve our goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Politic: To what extent have you seen negotiations or dialogue change since the election of President Hassan Rouhani?

There is no question that the kind of language and general approach that President Rouhani and his team are bringing to the negotiations are very different from that of his predecessor. That’s a welcome change, but the question is whether that change in rhetoric really offers a change in policy. We are obviously pleased to hear a different tone, but at the end of the day, the body of words needs to be matched by positive and verifiable actions that can satisfy the entire international community that Iran is in compliance with its international nuclear obligations.

I think Israel also recognizes that when an opportunity for a diplomatic opening is presented, as was the case when a new Iranian government took office, it needs to be tested. Of course, Israel is concerned that the testing may go wrong, and that the leverage mechanisms might be given away before there is clarity regarding what verifiable actions Iran is prepared to take. We agree with its concerns. So that’s the approach that both of us are taking as these negotiations get underway.

The Politic: Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories an extraordinary number of times since his February 2013 appointment, in an attempt to make progress in negotiations. What, in your opinion, is different about this his recent efforts? Do you see in this initiative a different and new opportunity for success?

Secretary Kerry has indeed devoted himself, in an incredibly intense and personal way, to a new initiative attempting to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he is due great credit for making that such a high priority, and for the effective and assertive policy that he has pursued so far. It is still too early to know what the results will be.

Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu with Ambassador Daniel Shapiro
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu with Ambassador Daniel Shapiro

He is really following the lead that President Obama set during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories this past March. It was a visit that surprised some people, because a lot of commentators expected that because President Obama made a significant effort to advance Middle East peace in his first term but didn’t achieve the success that he had hoped, he would steer away from it in his second term. In fact, while he covered the full range of issues in our relationship with Israel and countries like Iran and Syria during his visit, he spent a significant time on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In his interaction with the Israeli public, including a very important speech he gave in Jerusalem, as well as in his meetings with Palestinian people, he made it very clear that the United States remains committed to the goal of two states for two peoples as a way to end this conflict. This solution will give Israelis and Palestinians the ability to achieve their own aspirations: security, a recognized Jewish State of Israel, and a viable, independent Palestinian State where Palestinians can determine their own future. So the president’s speech and initiative during his visit became the launching pad for Secretary Kerry.

Many of the same problems in previous negotiations are still present. There is a significant lack of trust between the parties—both parties have narratives and various traumas that they have suffered through. There are genuine gaps between them on the core issues of borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, and how those issues will be resolved.

But there were a lot of people who predicted that it wouldn’t even be possible to get them back to the negotiating table, and I think what Secretary Kerry demonstrated is that sustained focus and diplomatic effort generates a lot of international support, including from the Arab League the European Union. The Secretary was also able to draw from his personal relationships of many years with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and President [Mahmoud] Abbas, and he has their confidence that the United States is looking out for their interests and needs: Israel’s security and recognition, and Palestinian desire for self-determination and independence. This has created an environment in which we’ve been able to talk, against a lot of expectations, and the talks have progressed fairly quickly to a serious and substantive phase.

That’s not to say that it’s certain what the outcome will be. We’ve put as our goal a final status agreement within a nine-month period, and we are three months into that nine-month period now. All the gaps still remain between the parties. But the president, Secretary Kerry, and the Special Envoy, Martin Indyk, are facilitating the negotiations with a great deal of international support, and courageous decisions have been taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas just to start the negotiations, in which they had to stand up to opposition within their own political communities. There’s a very significant economic initiative backed by many in the Arab community for Palestinian economic development, as well as a security initiative between the United States military and the Israeli Defense Forces to make sure that Israel’s security needs will be properly met in a two-state solution. We believe we have given these negotiations a very good chance at succeeding. We remain absolutely dedicated to achieving this outcome and continue to make it one of our top priorities.

The Politic: What does your role in the actual peace negotiations look like on a day-to-day basis, in terms of what meetings you’re organizing and who you’re speaking with? To what extent do you play an active role in those negotiations?

I speak with senior Israeli officials every day, and many of them work in the Prime Minister’s Office, which is at the center of policymaking, including negotiations with the Palestinians. So there’s almost always, on a daily basis, an issue that requires follow-ups, a suggestion that we might make, or a recommendation that they might make to us. Special Envoy Indyk is our facilitator for the talks themselves, and he is often present when the two sides are meeting with each other. He and I will often meet with the Israeli negotiators before or after those meetings.

My counterpart, the Resident Consul General in Jerusalem, who represents the interests of the Palestinian Authority, does the same with the representatives for negotiations on the Palestinian side. So there’s an almost constant dialogue between us, the Israeli negotiators, and other critical policymakers in the Prime Minister’s office to help facilitate those negotiations.

Of course, we also maintain very close communication with Washington, other members of the Secretary’s team, the Secretary himself, the White House, and the National Security Council staff, to ensure internal coordination. What’s been very noteworthy about this particular diplomatic effort is the very personal nature of Secretary Kerry’s involvement. He speaks with Prime Minister Netanyahu several times a week, and with President Abbas nearly as often. He finds a way to see them somewhere, whether here in the region, or in New York at the United Nations, or in Washington, or in Europe. Because he believes, and I think correctly so, that at the end of the day, the decisions will be made by the leaders, and the leaders need to have confidence that the United States is going to stand with them as they take these steps.

Negotiators have a very important role to get to the table and actually make progress on negotiations over very critical details of potential agreements. But at the end of the day, the big decisions, trade-offs, and compromises have to be made by leaders who have confidence in each other and in the United States as a reliable third party to facilitate them. We have to ensure that their co-interests are met.

The Politic: In your opinion, how much tangible and substantive change comes from the top down, and from leaders at the negotiating table, and how much is it determined by grassroots-level, public support for what’s going on at the table?

I think there’s an interplay between leaders and their publics. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have publics who generally have significant majorities who support the goal of all these negotiations, which is a two-state solution, with two states living side by side in peace and security. But they also both have publics in which significant majorities have significant doubts about the prospects for success. It’s about the other side’s willingness to make necessary concessions. Both leaders understand that they have to respond to the feelings of their publics, and that can have a certain limiting effect on the leaders’ decisions.

On the other hand, I think we have seen many occasions, especially in the Middle East, where determined leaders are really willing to pursue negotiations, in the event that a leader on the other side is a partner, and to make a strong case to their own public about why difficult decisions and compromises were ultimately necessary and in their own country’s interest. They were able to will public opinion.

I think the greatest example of that in this context was the visit of President Sadat of Egypt to Israel in 1977. Prior to his visit, the vast majority of Israelis had great doubts about the willingness of Egypt to be a true peace partner, and the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, reflected those doubts. But President Sadat’s visit was a game changer in terms of public opinion, and it helped move Israeli government policy. It made the government of Egypt, and to some degree the people of Egypt, to recognize that a change was necessary and ultimately good for Egypt, as well as for Israel. So leaders can shape public opinion.

The Politic: Egypt has been a long-term bulwark of Arab stability in the region, most notably since 1979. In your opinion, how does rhetoric from Tel Aviv and Washington regarding Egypt either relate or differ, particularly over its past two years of political instability?

I think the United States and Israel see Egypt in very similar terms. You are correct that Egypt has been a critical pillar or stability in the Middle East for many years, and it goes back to President Sadat’s visit and the Camp David Accords that followed, as well as the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Accord. That peace treaty, which made for a quiet border between Egypt and Israel, and Egypt, as a member of the Arab Coalition, has done a great deal to stabilize the region.

The very close U.S.-Egyptian relationship, in which we are a security partner with the Egyptian military, has done a great deal in countering terrorist threats and cooperating on other regional challenges. It has also enabled Egyptian-Israeli coordination on counter-terrorist measures. In this region, there’s a strong threat of extremist groups or terrorist organizations taking advantage of freedom of movement in the Sinai Peninsula, in addition to the threat posed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. So all of those are things that the United States and Israel see in common regarding Egypt.

Obviously, both countries want Egypt’s transition to proceed with stability, without extremists gaining power and without losing the connections that have been formed between our respective militaries and political leaders. At the same time, due to what we have seen in recent weeks, starting with the change of power in July, it has been difficult to continue all of our assistance and business as usual. So certain programs have been suspended, with the goal of helping Egypt return to a path of a peaceful transition towards democratically elected civilian control.

In fact, Secretary Kerry was in Egypt today to underscore our desire for continued partnership with Egypt and our hope that Egypt can return to that path of transition, so that we can restore our agreements and traditional relationship. That relationship serves all kinds of countries in the region, including Israel. I think that Egyptians and Israelis would both like to see a return to a stable relationship between the U.S. and Egypt.

The Politic: How do you believe that America is represented abroad overall? Are there elements of U.S. foreign policy that you personally would seek to change, if given the ability?

It would be quite out of character for an Ambassador to state differences in opinion about U.S. foreign policy, so I don’t think I’ll take that particular question. I will say that one of the things I have discovered about how we conduct our foreign policy, in my term as Ambassador, is the extreme importance of building connections not only between our governments but also with the people in the country in which we are representing the United States. This was something that Secretary Clinton put a great deal of emphasis on during her tenure, and that Secretary Kerry has continued.

The idea is that nowadays, in an era when everyone has mobile handheld communications devices, everyone has access to the internet and instant communications around the world. The publics are empowered, because they have a voice. We now see that expressed in many of the upheavals that have taken place in the Middle East, including Israel, to some degree. It didn’t have the kind of revolution that was in Egypt, because it was already a democratic system—but in July 2012, there were mass street protests over economic matters and dissatisfaction with the social policy. So publics are empowered and have a say in the direction of their own government. Governments are forced to be much more responsive to their publics than I think in any time in history.

It is really up to the United States to get our diplomats to spend time out of the traditional halls of power like ministries and embassies. Even though they still remain very important, they don’t provide diplomats with opportunities to interact with all the diversities of their population. So my colleagues and I in the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv spend as much time as we can out on the road, visiting every community we can in Israel, including those who are very surprised to see a U.S. Ambassador come visit. We have visited small towns in the periphery, as well as towns with important minority communities. In Bnei Brak, there’s a large ultra-orthodox population, and in Petach Tikva, there’s a large Ethiopian population.

It’s very important that we understand the society as a whole and not view it only through the lens of government authorities. We also need to work in close partnership with the government, especially in a close alliance like this one. But if we want the public to feel as invested in this relationship as we do, we need the support of new emerging populations and growing minorities in Israel, particularly the ultra-orthodox population and Arab population. We want them to understand why the U.S.-Israeli important to them, as well as the opportunities it creates for exchanges between America and Israelis of every background, ethnic group, and religion.

So that has become a major focus of my work, which of course involves social media to advance our communication with the public: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and every other platform that we can develop. I think that the conduct of diplomacy has changed, so that whatever policy you’re pursuing, it’s important to communicate it to the public as well as to the leaders, and to listen to the public and understand their views on it as well.


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