Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro Talks About Everything (including Ya’ir Lapid)

Ben Caspit, Ma’ariv’s Musafshabat Supplement, pp 1-5

The interview with Ambassador Dan Shapiro two days ago opened with the hottest topic in the region. Not Iran or Syria, but Ya’ir Lapid. “Yes,” confirmed Shapiro with a smile, “I am closely following events in this sphere, Lapid’s announcement too. Israeli politics is extraordinarily fascinating, as you know. I have not met Lapid, and I don’t know him, but I understand that he has quite a few admirers in Israel, as a journalist and as a public figure, and now this will be put to the political test. His entry into politics is a fascinating new element. I understand that a very interesting season is opening here; it is too early to tell whether his entrance will change the political situation and the political map in Israel.”

I asked the ambassador if he could think of an American figure similar to Lapid in terms of influence, popularity level, and the potential for entering politics. Shapiro pondered a moment and said: “Oprah, Oprah Winfrey. Like Lapid, she is not just a television personality. Neither is he just a journalist; he is also part of the Israeli culture.” I told Shapiro that the comparison was problematic because Oprah started at the bottom and rose to the top, having come from the black minority in the United States, whereas Lapid belongs to the old, deep-rooted Israeli elite. “True,” Shapiro agreed. “Perhaps America is too big to have someone like Lapid, someone whom everyone in Israel feels they know and that they have a connection with. America is too big; it is difficult to preserve the sense of closeness that exists here in Israel.”

There Will Not Be a Nuclear Iran

Dan Shapiro has taken Israel by storm. He took to it like a duck to water. An ardent Jew, a Hebrew speaker, down to earth, and enjoying every minute of it. He eats falafel, roams the streets, visits rabbis, and is a guest in the finest homes. It seems Shapiro was born to do this job. America has had great ambassadors to Israel, like the legendary Sam Lewis and like Martin Indyk and Dan Kurtzer who left their mark and had an impact, and it has had dull, bureaucratic ambassadors who came and left without anyone noticing (like the two most recent ones, for example). There has never been an ambassador like Shapiro. He is a diplomat and a chum, unpretentious, simultaneously polished and rough. There was no need to arrange a transition time for him when he took the post; he slid into it easily, and at times it seems he is playing his role with a real passion. He even enjoys the media aspect. Shapiro loves microphones, flirting with the cameras, and is open, frank, and engaging. What his boss (Barack Obama) needs right now is to give Israel many warm hugs, and Shapiro is embracing us nonstop. Despite the obligatory nature of it, I think he quite likes it.

Let’s talk about Iran, I told him. Everyone knows that until an embargo is imposed on the Iranian Central Bank, the sanctions won’t really be painful. The Europeans are now in favor, Congress has voted in favor, yet the White House is blocking it. The President is worried about a rise in oil prices before elections, which apparently is more important to him than the Iranian nuclear threat. Here we say that the Iranian nuclear program is a matter of life and death for Israel, but just a matter of living costs for America.

“I disagree,” said Shapiro, “the debate surrounding the sanctions on the Central Bank is not about whether they should be imposed, but rather how to do it most effectively. If the Iranian Central Bank is the pipeline through which Iran receives payment for its oil, and they find a way to sell oil despite the sanctions with the attendant impact on rising oil prices, then the result could end up being the opposite to the one we wanted. Instead of decreasing Iran’s profits, it could increase them. The goal of the sanctions is to prevent Iran from receiving payment for its oil, and the question is how to do this. The Senate passed the sanctions by an overwhelming majority, nearly unanimously, and the wording was reached by careful negotiation. Now there is a final version and it is very powerful.”

“Since the President signed this into law, we have launched a worldwide diplomatic campaign, our embassies have approached all the governments to find out whether they purchase Iranian oil and are assisting them in obtaining alternative suppliers. We are working with key countries that are still buying Iranian oil and helping them find alternative sources, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. We are pressuring governments to pressure businessmen in the private sector to stop making deals and money transfers with the Iranian Central Bank. I think that we are now attempting to influence international behavior on everything regarding Iran, and we are already seeing clear results, like the collapse of the Iranian currency and the economic difficulties it’s experiencing, and in the Iranian political behavior.”

That’s nice, I said, but the timetable is against you and us. Yesterday it turned out that they are already operating the subterranean uranium enrichment site near Qom, and enriching to a level of 20 percent, and that means that they are progressing and that they might get there before the elections, and correct me if I’m wrong. Shapiro was happy to correct me: “It should be clear that the United States treats the Iranian threat just as Israel does. It is an existential threat to you and to other countries in the region and in the Persian Gulf, and to our interests and our forces in the area, and, potentially, this threat applies to us as well. We see eye to eye with you the gravity of the situation and the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The President said he would prevent Iran from acquiring them, and he means it. The sanctions have reached the highest level, and this trend will continue. We are aware that the Iranians are going ahead with their plans, and the news from the site near Qom proves it. The goal has not been achieved. Iran continues to violate gravely its international commitments, and since achieving the shared goal is so important, then it should be clear that all options are open. Furthermore, we are examining all options actively and making the necessary plans to ensure that the options exist, and I’m not ruling out any resolute measure in this area. This has nothing to do with political timetables.”

I asked the ambassador what “making plans” meant, and if it includes training. After all, foreign sources have reported that the Israeli Air Force is training intensively. There have also been disagreements between the United States and Israel over these training exercises, which included flying a large number of fighter planes for large-scale maneuvers over the Mediterranean Sea, which led to irate and worried phone calls from Washington to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “Look,” said Shapiro, “we have a massive presence in the Gulf.” If he were less polite, he would simply explain that when the United States has hundreds of bombers aboard aircraft carriers facing Iran, Israel’s need to train is immaterial. “In any case,” added the ambassador, “when I say planning, I mean that we are guaranteeing that the military option is ready and available to the President at the moment he decides to use it.”

At the Saban Forum, I told Shapiro, the impression was given that the United States is actually close to recognizing the reality of a nuclear Iran, and is planning how to contain it. “That is not true, there is not and will not be such a thing,” said Shapiro. “The President is resolute and clear in his statements, to prevent the Iranian nuclear threat from becoming a reality. It is a dangerous matter for us and our allies, and that is why heavy international pressure is being applied on Iran, and that is why we are making sure all options are open, available and ready. This is not a containment strategy.”

Dialogue With the Muslim Brotherhood

Let’s talk about the Arab Spring, I proposed. “I don’t use that term,” said the ambassador. So what do you call it? I asked. “The changes in the Arab world,” he said. Indeed, a refreshing change. The Americans as well, it turns out, have already understood that it is no spring. On the other hand, no one knows yet what it is.

I asked Shapiro if they are worried about what is transpiring, as Islamic parties take over countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and if they have no regrets about the way and speed with which they turned their back on their veteran ally, Mubarak. Shapiro answered at length. Here is a summary of his answer: “We are realistic. It is clear to us that we cannot control what it happening in the Arab world. External forces cannot intervene in these processes. The change is coming from within, from the Arab public that is exposed to the media in ways that previously did not exist. We are aware of the fact that the process and changes include very big risks. Many times in the history of revolutions, radicals ‘hijacked’ the revolution halfway through and took the state to places where the original revolutionaries never intended it to go. We believe these changes will not take weeks or months but rather years, and that in the initial period we will see and hear very disturbing things. And we are definitely worried about the radical elements that are taking over. On the other hand, these changes also entail opportunities, and we mustn’t ignore them.

“We, all of us, must try as much as possible to influence in a positive direction. To strengthen the elements that believe in democratic values. To make clear what those values are. To make clear that every such new regime must honor the rights of minorities, must honor agreements and treaties, and in the case of Egypt, must honor the peace treaty with Israel. And violence must not be used against the people. These are the guidelines we can draw, according to which we will see whether the new governments that are forming are indeed democratic. Can we guarantee it? No. But we can try, we can provide aid to the economies, aid the democratic elements and use the leverage we have in such countries as Egypt. And we can make it clear that our aid will only come through if the government acts responsibly. The Egyptians have heard from us that our relationship will exist only if they respect the accord with Israel and move in a positive direction on that issue. These are our tools, we use them, although we cannot guarantee that the results will be positive. Israel has never had the luxury of democratic neighbors, which tend not to fight each other. We will have to continue to keep track of the developments, minimize damage, and of course continue to stick to our total and uncompromising commitment to Israel’s security. We will help Israel deal with any threat that materializes.”

I asked Shapiro whether the United States has forged working relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. “We speak to them,” he confirmed, “and explain to them in the clearest possible way that they must honor universal values, such as the rights of minorities and women, and insist that Egypt maintain the peace treaty with Israel. We understand that the Muslim Brotherhood will be a very significant player in Egyptian politics at the end of the electoral process, and it is our interest that they understand what we want of them and how we see the way to establish a responsible government in Egypt, such as the need to form a coalition with less radical parties and give a place for the military as well. I think we need to maintain a dialogue with an element such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which will have a decisive weight in the Egyptian administration.”

They said, I told the ambassador, that they would honor the peace treaty with Israel, and denied it two days later. What do they really want? “I don’t think they are monolithic,” said the ambassador, “they too have an internal debate. There are more moderate and less moderate elements. There is also the more extreme Salafist party, and all in all, the process is dynamic, they are trying to find the golden path to succeed in internal Egyptian politics on one hand, and maintain a level of international reliability and legitimacy on the other hand. We are doing our best to influence their decisions. If you look at the processes in the region throughout the years, you can see that within the Islamists as well there are extremists with whom you can never do business, and moderates who believe that a way needs to be found to combine the Islamist principles with responsible international behavior. These voices need to be encouraged.” What do you say to the Saudis and others who claimed you abandoned Mubarak? “President Obama identified in February 2011 that the Mubarak days were over. Not because we had decided, but because that is what the Egyptian people had decided. The only way for Mubarak to stay in power was to do what Bashar al-Asad is doing in Syria now, and that is to massacre his people. And this would have been a tragedy. He chose not to do it, and in any case the United States was not a major player in his downfall.”

I asked the ambassador how they feel when they see this long-time ally, whom Shim’on Peres called “the rock” of the region, laying in a cage. “It disturbs us. He was an ally, he made a decisive contribution to peace and security in the region, even though he didn’t rule Egypt democratically. We are not ignoring his contribution to Egypt, to the region and to the relations with us. It is disturbing and not easy to see what is happening to him there, but it is a process on which the Egyptian people need to decide, not us.”

Everyone is eulogizing Al-Asad, I told Shapiro, yet with all those eulogies, he gave a two-hour speech yesterday, looking great, and then even went out to mingle with the masses. Could it be that we are all mistaken? “No,” said Shapiro, “Al-Asad’s days are over, he must go, and the sooner the better; we believe it is just a matter of time. We have built against him a system of international and economic pressures, and he is under real pressure. His money has run out, the opposition is gaining power and respectability, and he is surviving now only due to the murder of thousands of his people. It is unacceptable, and we hope it ends as soon as possible. We have a very brave ambassador in Damascus, and we are acting, through him as well, to encourage the opposition in Syria and make sure they can obtain stability quickly after he is gone, and to give assurances to the various communities within Syria that no harm will come to them.”

The Palestinians Must Not Be Lost

Finally we came to the Palestinian topic. Don’t you think, I asked him, that the fact we are only now coming to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks, a moment before the end of the interview, is absolutely crazy?

Shapiro, for those who have forgotten, was a senior member of President Obama’s peace team, a team that burst into our lives with a bang three years ago with grand declarations, big plans, and tremendous hopes and was later disassembled with a whisper as the peace process sank into a terminal coma. “Clearly,” he said frankly, “since the Annapolis process, we have all succeeded less and made less progress than we wanted. When I look back over the past three years, I think all the sides made mistakes, and all the sides should have done things a bit differently.”

I am not certain, I told him. I think Binyamin Netanyahu is celebrating; he would have done it all again exactly the same way, since he has been the big winner of these three years. I thought I could get some critical remarks on Netanyahu out of Shapiro, since the Americans made a career out of it until a few months ago. But I was wrong. “Netanyahu said that he wants to hold talks directly with the Palestinians and that he wants to arrive at a two-state solution, and I believe him,” said Shapiro. “He understands that it is in Israel’s interests to preserve Israel as a Jewish state and we support this, and he also needs to look out for Israel’s security, and we support him in that as well. The talks have not progressed the way all of us wanted. I think we need to look forward and realize that the need has not changed, the interests have not changed, and even when the situation is difficult and there’s very little trust between the sides, we must not lose hope and need to keep going forward.”

Come on, I told Shapiro, you are all sweet talk and blandishments, not out of love for Netanyahu but to court the Jewish vote and money. I wonder what kind of Obama we will get if he returns for a second term. “President Obama does not change,” interjected his ambassador. “I don’t deal with political matters, but I promise you that our policy is consistent and won’t change, either before or after the elections. We have so many values and interests in common with Israel, and that is why we are both so close. I have great confidence that if we sit here next year, you will hear the exact same things from me.”