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Former U.S. Envoy to Israel Returns to Speak at American University

By Nicole Schaller

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro returned to the United States to speak at American University’s Amos Perlmutter Memorial Lecture on Jan. 28.

After working six years as the U.S. envoy to Israel under the Obama administration, Shapiro is currently still living in Israel with his wife and three daughters. He is working as a distinguished fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute of National Security Studies.

“Now, in my post-government life based in a think tank in Tel Aviv, I am only just beginning to reflect and process some of what I learned and lived through,” said Shapiro.


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro meets with Israeli President Shimon Peres after presenting his credentials at the president's residence in Jerusalem on Aug. 3, 2011.(Photo courtesy of the US State Department)

Throughout the lecture, Shapiro, who served in various government positions for 25 years, spoke about Israeli-U.S. relations during his time as ambassador.

“The U.S. and Israeli interests remains very closely aligned,” said Shapiro. “And indeed, there is certainly no country in the Middle East that we have closer alignment of interests and very few in the world that we can handle challenges and opposition with.”

Some of the highlights between the two countries’ diplomacy during Shapiro’s tenure included the controversial Iran nuclear agreement, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and a U.S. $38 billion, 10-year military aid package to Israel, as well as funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system. In the lecture, Shapiro noted that Iron Dome has intercepted over 1,000 rockets targeted at Israel since 2014.


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

On Jan. 10, 2012, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro visits the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, one of the largest yeshivas in the world, with over 6,000 students, 1,000 of whom are from the United States. (Photo: US State Department)

Not everything was smooth sailing during Shapiro’s posting, however. Both Shapiro and his boss, President Obama, were advocates of the two-state solution and Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a testy relationship, particularly over Jewish settlements that critics say are impediment to peace with the Palestinians. Shapiro was open about the tensions.

“While [America’s] interests are closely aligned with Israel, they don’t always overlap completely and that’s completely natural and there’s nothing new about it,” he said. “In every pairing of a president and prime minister, even as cooperation and common approaches have increased, there have been disagreement.”


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Aug. 4, 2011. Shapiro’s boss, President Obama, and Netanyahu had a testy relationship over Jewish settlements and the Iran nuclear deal. (Photo: US State Department)

A particular point of disagreement between the two heads of state was the 2015 agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Shapiro said he understands both countries’ positions on the deal but believes that a nuclear agreement with Iran was ultimately the right decision.

“My own view is that it’s not perfect, but it did what it needed to do,” said Shapiro. “It removed enriched uranium and plutonium capability from Iran and replaced it with intrusive inspections, which will block every pathway Iran could take for a nuclear weapon. And keep them at least a decade instead of two to three months from that capability, which is where they sat before the agreement. It’s not the end of Iran’s nuclear program … but it does buy us time.”


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, hosted by Israeli Air Force Capt. Elad Tzinman and Col. Tzvika Chaimovitch, travels to the south of Israel for a tour of the Iron Dome Battery in Ashkelon on Aug. 9, 2011. Shapiro noted that the U.S.-funded Iron Dome has intercepted over 1,000 rockets targeted at Israel since 2014. (Photo: US State Department)

Shapiro also noted other diplomatic challenges Israel and the United States have faced, including: relations with Egypt following the military coup that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power; the Kurdish independence referendum to secede from Iraq; and the level of Western involvement in the Syrian war. And, of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which resurfaced in the headlines after President Trump declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, potentially sinking any possibility of a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. Ultimately though, Shapiro is optimistic despite various disagreements between the two countries.

“It’s like a relationship,” said Shapiro. “It’s always better to confront these questions honestly rather than denial. And so, we shouldn’t be scared of an occasional strife between us nor should we pretend it’s not there. I think the relationship will actually be stronger if we deal with it honestly.”


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

President Barack Obama talks with members of his Middle East Policy team, including from right, George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East Peace; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Dennis Ross, senior director for the Central Region; and Dan Shapiro, senior director for the Middle East, in the Oval Office on Sept. 1, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

With the new administration, Shapiro said he was surprised that he agreed with much of Trump’s approach to Israel up to this point.

“I have many, many differences with President Trump that I will not outlie here,” said Shapiro. “But I’ve not criticized his approach on this area [diplomacy with Israel], because I think his approach has been frankly well within mainstream U.S. policy.”

Despite the recent announcement that the U.S. will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which Shapiro referred to as a “mistake,” Shapiro generally believes that Trump supports a two-state solution.

“Trump doesn’t use the precise term for two states,” said Shapiro. “But there is no better outcome that could achieve what he has called for, which is a peace agreement that ends the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians reached through negotiations that allows Palestinians to achieve self-determination and that’ll open up Israel’s relations with other Arab States.”

Nicole Schaller is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat.



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