A day before Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and President Barack Obama met at the White House, I shared the “Press Stage” at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro. Instead of living in the story of the moment, the diplomat took a longer view on the world leaders’ much-discussed relationship.
“Frankly, I think that when history is written about this period, out of the day-to-day political narrative and the tensions that exist in both countries, I think the history will be kinder to [Obama and Netanyahu] and kinder to what they achieved together than what sometimes comes across in the day-to-day media coverage,” Shapiro told me.
The following is an edited and condensed version of the rest of my interview with Shapiro.
JNS: You’re on the ground in Israel. What has it been like for you, personally and professionally, during this current wave of terror? What’s your job as ambassador, and what’s America’s job, during a time like this?
Ambassador Shapiro: Obviously as an ambassador who has protection and bodyguards, it doesn’t necessarily affect me in the same way that it affects most of the citizens of Israel, although I have to say, even with the fine professionals who help me, I find myself a little more on guard just going around Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or wherever it is I am. I have a daughter who studies in high school in Ra’anana who will remember that there was a day when there were two stabbings on the streets of Ra’anana in very public, well-trafficked places. And so we as a family understood that it affects our family as well. It affects every Israeli family.
Our (America’s) role here in a situation like this is number one to be very clear about condemning terror, [to say] there’s never an excuse for terror, there’s never an excuse for stabbing civilians or running them over at bus stops; to condemn and call out incitement that often is part of the fuel for terror; to provide a sense of solidarity to Israeli people who are experiencing it, visiting hospitals, attending funerals, and so forth. And still, to look for those openings for a diplomatic set of steps that can help lower tensions, that can help lower rhetoric, that can help give people something positive to hold onto, so they’re not—in whatever feelings of despair or whatever emotions are stirred up—driven toward that terrible choice of using violence, that they see that there is another path to address whatever concerns they have.
Monday’s meeting is not the first rodeo for Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. What are your expectations for their meeting?
Well, you did title this session “Relationship Status,” and it’s complicated. As an avid user of social media in my outreach to the Israeli public, I’m inclined to accept the framing of this discussion.
Tomorrow’s meeting is the latest in a relationship that obviously goes through certain phases and certain cycles, the fundamentals of which, the bedrock and the basis of which really has never changed—and that’s a positive thing. It has never changed in the sense of a very strong, deeply felt commitment and policy in terms of our own interests of having the closest possible relationship with Israel, in helping Israel achieve its goals of security, its qualitative military edge, its ability to defend itself—particularly in a very chaotic and dangerous region, and its goals of achieving peace with its neighbors, including a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Those have always been bedrock principles and nothing about them has changed, even though we have been through complicated periods in this relationship, even though particularly in the last year we’ve been through very public disagreements in this relationship. So one of things I think we look to for tomorrow is a sense of a chapter having closed. We can’t deny that over the last year we had a very difficult, very public disagreement, and one never likes to have a public disagreement with a friend or someone close to you.
I think maybe we could have made different decisions about how [the disagreement] was expressed, but it’s over. The [Iran nuclear] deal has been signed, it’s been implemented, it’s passed its Congressional review, and it’s the very clear intention of both sides going into this meeting that we’re not going to rehash that disagreement. And the bedrock commitments of the relationship require us to look forward.
Some media reports indicate that Israel planned to ask for $5 billion in annual military aid from the U.S., up from $3 billion, and that President Obama would reject the offer. What are the implications of the numbers being discussed?
I think it’s premature to talk about specific numbers, but there’s already a very detailed and professional discussion underway to do a couple things—in the first instance, to ensure that we have a common understanding of the threat that Israel faces.
I anticipate a focus on upgrading our cooperation around the Iron Dome, the David’s Sling, and the Arrow systems. So what I expect will emerge from the meeting tomorrow is not a focus on a number, but a focus on a common strategic understanding that will allow President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu to give instructions to their defense professionals to then sit down and craft a package…that will be most relevant and most on-point in addressing the most pressing threats. Everything in life requires making choices and priorities. There are budget realities that both of us face. We have limits to what money is available. Israel in its own budget debate is constantly deciding how much is the right amount for defense spending against other priorities. So it’s not for the two of them tomorrow to sit and agree on a number, it’s to agree on a common strategic picture that will inform the negotiations over the next weeks and months.
Media reports and statements by U.S. officials also indicate pessimism on the part of the president about the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement being reached at any point during the rest of his term. Does this mark a change in policy?
The president, from his first day in office, has always felt and continues to feel and believe today, that a two states for two peoples solution is imperative for Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and for its long-term security and opportunities from broader relations in the Arab world; for the Palestinians to achieve their legitimate rights of self-determination in a state of their own; and for our own interests in terms of how it affects our posture and our position in the region. So that hasn’t changed, and it won’t change. And frankly, I don’t think that’s a difference between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks regularly about his desire to avoid a binational state.
However, there is a certain recognition of a reality—not a reality we would have chosen, of course, and we arrive at it with some sorrow. After two very prominent efforts to promote negotiations—in the first term with George Mitchell, in the second term with Secretary Kerry and Martin Indyk, as the special envoy, both of which failed, and we have to acknowledge the failure—we think given the certain set of circumstances, the time available, and the relationship between the two leaders, which is not one of trust, the relationships between the populations, which frankly also is not one of great trust, and the violence that has occurred, that the great likelihood is we will not achieve a two-state solution in our remaining time in President Obama’s term and may well not even be able to achieve negotiations.
The change, if it’s a change, is that we may not be able to invest the same kind of time that Secretary Kerry did in March of 2013 to get negotiations launched, which was an incredible investment of time, energy, and diplomatic capital.
You might notice me saying, “reports said this, reports said that.” Sitting from your chair, what do you think of media coverage of the U.S.-Israel relationship these days?
I think there has been over the course of these years of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu serving together a perhaps understandable, but perhaps excessive focus on the two leaders and their personal relationship, kind of putting them on the couch as it were, to analyze their emotions about each other and about their relationship. It’s understandable, there’s always a human element to leadership relationships and to international relations, but I think it has been pursued to an excess here. I think the overall narrative is one that has focused on that too much in the sense that it has lost the focus on those bedrock commitments and stability and very positive joint security cooperation that goes on day in and day out.
There’s no doubt that they’ve had their disagreements, and that’s perfectly normal. But there’s no question that there are people in both countries who seem to have an interest in stoking that sense of controversy and conflict when perhaps it’s less than meets the eye. Those same two leaders have together achieved what is widely acknowledged by security professionals and many others in both countries as the highest and most intensive and most successful security cooperation we’ve ever achieved, in intelligence-sharing, in missile defense, in dealing with the aftermath of the transitions in the Arab world, in building the sanctions regime and putting the pressure on Iran that ultimately brought them to the [negotiating] table. Those are things that those two leaders decided together, in quiet, respectful, professional discussions, and then instructed their governments and militaries and intelligence agencies to carry out.
How do you respond to criticism of President Obama’s Israel policy in some parts of the Jewish community, specifically to those who say he is soft on Islamic terrorism and disproportionately critical of Israel when compared with past presidents?
Obviously I’m very proud to serve this president, this administration, and wouldn’t do so if I felt that I was serving a president who did not absolutely share my values of the importance of this relationship, the importance of doing everything that we need to do to help ensure Israel’s security and help Israel achieve peace with its neighbors. Of course it’s his administration, it’s his policies. Sometimes in Israel…people say things like, ‘You know, we really like you Ambassador Shapiro, but we really don’t like President Obama.’ And I say to them, ‘That’s wrong. I don’t validate him, he validates me.’ He appointed me. I’m in Israel carrying out exactly the policies that he wants me to carry out….All of it is part of a president who going well back to his early days in public life, long before he was even a United States senator, has spoken out about his own belief in Israel’s legitimacy and the importance of the Jewish people having a homeland, and of America’s obligation to provide for Israel’s security, even in times and in places and among political constituencies where it wasn’t necessarily the most popular thing he could have said. Those are deeply held values that he has.