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Dan Shapiro at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C., 2018Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Ambassador Dan Shapiro Comes Home to Joe Biden’s Washington

American Jewish groups imagine the former U.S. envoy as a bulwark protecting Israel against Democratic Party radicals—but is that more about hope, or anxiety?

by
Armin Rosen
January 28, 2021
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Dan Shapiro at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C., 2018Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Dan Shapiro is shaping up to be one of the pivotal Israel policy figures in the Joe Biden administration, just as he was during Barack Obama’s presidency. Under Obama, Shapiro served on the National Security Council and then as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the contentious run-up to the Iran Nuclear Deal. This time, Shapiro is likely to be one of the people the next ambassador reports to—and a key player in any new Iran agreement. “Dan’s partly political—his calculations and his positions are going to always be partly political,” says Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a more hawkish-leaning foreign policy think tank in Washington, and someone who frequently shares his high regard for Shapiro on social media. “But he’s also a thoughtful policy professional and he’s someone [Israelis] know cares deeply about the U.S.-Israel relationship, and that goes a long way.”

If Shapiro joins the Biden administration at a high level, he will show off the success of a pioneering new career path for an American political operative. During the past four years Shapiro has been living in Israel—the country where he recently served as U.S. ambassador—while participating in the political affairs of both Israel and the United States on a regular basis. For reasons of diplomatic rotation, tradition, and respect for the incoming president and his team and the democratic changeover of power more generally, hundreds of American ambassadors have thought it prudent to return to the United States once the president they served left office. Shapiro is among the small minority that reached a different conclusion.

And it seems to have worked out. In Israel, Shapiro was a well-connected channel to and from the party out of power in the United States—which as top Israelis knew had the potential of returning to power in the near future. Whether intentionally or not, Shapiro became a Democratic Party beachhead in Israel. From a perch at a politically well-connected think tank, he frequently opined on the state of a U.S.-Israel relationship whose future he might soon control.

Meanwhile, Shapiro has continued to participate in American politics as a member of the Democratic National Convention’s platform committee and a key Jewish communal validator for the policies of the past Democratic administration and for the eventual next president of the United States.

“He’s a very effective surrogate when he says that Barack Obama is pro-Israel,” said Dubowitz. “We know that that’s not true. But when Dan said it, it sounded like it was true.”

Indeed, before and during the election season, Shapiro’s messaging proved effective, at least in the United States. Many American Jews, conditioned to voting for Democrats, see Israel as a low-to-middling political priority and are eager to believe the best about the man who replaced Trump, who was a uniquely polarizing and even widely loathed figure within the community. Yet Shapiro’s importance partly comes from a widespread anxiety that there is no one else like him on his own side—that he is a one-man bulwark protecting the U.S.-Israel relationship from a party increasingly populated by ideologues who dream of severing the historically close ties between America and the Jewish state.

When he was named U.S. ambassador to Israel in March of 2011, Shapiro, a Middle East director on the National Security Council with no previous State Department experience, had the benefit of a close relationship with President Obama. In 2007, Shapiro, then deputy chief of staff for Sen. Ben Nelson, helped prepare then Sen. Obama for a meeting with the Israeli opposition leader at the time—Benjamin Netanyahu. Shapiro conducted Jewish outreach from an early point in Obama’s 2008 primary campaign, at a time when nearly the entire institutional Democratic Party supported Hillary Clinton; he also planned much of Democratic nominee Obama’s trip to Israel prior to the 2008 vote. Later on, Shapiro would be present for all but one of the dozen or so meetings between Netanyahu and Obama during Obama’s presidency.

As ambassador in Tel Aviv, Shapiro’s task proved almost historically difficult, not that being the American ambassador in Israel is ever easy. As Daniel Kurtzer, who held the job between 2001 and 2005, explained, an ambassador is often viewed as a surrogate for the president he represents: “They can’t yell at, in that case, President Obama. So they yell at you, wanting you to know that they would have yelled at Obama if he’d showed up.”

During the Obama years, the lectures must have been frequent—Shapiro and Netanyahu would either meet or otherwise cross paths at least once a week, and as one source close to Shapiro put it, the ambassador and prime minister “were seeing more of each other than either one wanted.” Yet Shapiro had a ready answer to critics of his boss. When traveling around Israel, the ambassador would often be embraced by people who would say, as a parting word, that it was unfortunate he was working for a president who hated their country so much. Shapiro would reply that he himself was the embodiment of what Obama wanted and what he thought of Israel—if you hated him then you hated me, he would say, and if you respected me it had to reflect back on him.

Shapiro’s time as ambassador was eventful, if not always what either country might describe as an especially fruitful eight years in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The 2014 John Kerry-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, during which Shapiro was in nearly all of the meetings and negotiations between the American team and the Israelis, ended in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas blowing up the discussions in favor of forming a unity government with Hamas; hostilities between Israel and the Gaza-based militant group erupted just weeks later.

In 2013, Shapiro’s embassy approved a grant to an organization called One Voice to promote a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the aim of an intensifying Obama administration diplomatic push. Money from the grant was used to pay 270 Strategies, an American consulting firm founded by former Organizing for America national director Jeremy Bird, which then used some of the State Department funds to organize to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s 2015 election. A senate investigation found no evidence that the embassy was deliberately interfering in Israeli politics, though for partisans in the United States and Israel, the incident highlighted the Obama administration’s alleged hostility toward Netanyahu. Then there was the Iran deal itself, negotiations for which were kept secret from the Israelis.

Thanks to his diplomatic skills and distance from the actual centers of decision-making in Washington, Israelis handed Shapiro relatively little personal blame for any of the Obama-era tensions. “Dan’s not a policymaker,” as one former Israeli official put it. “Dan’s a policy describer.”

Shapiro also remained broadly respected in Israel because of his own considerable abilities as a diplomat. “Notwithstanding the tsuris of the Iran deal, Dan was very much seen as an honest broker and as someone that folks from across the political spectrum could speak to,” said William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Daroff added that he attended joint meetings between Netanyahu and Shapiro in which “it was clear they spent a lot of time together, and that they had a very positive and trusting relationship.”

Unlike his predecessors Shapiro often traveled to development towns and other places on the Israeli periphery, and forged ties with everyone from Haredi leaders to the Arab Joint List’s Knesset members. He spoke in confident, ever-improving Hebrew. “He was the most Israeli American ambassador I’ve ever met,” recalled Hilik Bar, a former Labor Party member of Knesset and a member of the body’s foreign affairs and defense committee. “He was truly like, you know, one of us.”

Some Israelis on the right felt the same way—even among the leadership of the settler movement. Elie Pieprz, the YESHA Council’s director of external affairs, saw the now-former diplomat at a July 4th party at the ambassador’s residence, then occupied by David Friedman, where Pieprz and Shapiro talked about what room Shapiro had been in when his beloved Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series. The two had met before, six months prior to when Shapiro’s time as ambassador ended—Pieprz had urged Shapiro to help lift the American ban on Tel Aviv embassy staffers meeting with Israeli settlers, an idea to which Shapiro seemed sympathetic. In meetings after Shapiro left government, the now-ex-ambassador was “generally asking a lot of questions,” Pieprz said. “A lot of it was understanding the Israeli political scene—do we really think the Palestinians are just going to go away? What are our long-term goals? It never got contentious. It was always: I’d love to come out and visit.” Shapiro appeared at a Jewish Federations of North America virtual event last fall to discuss possible Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank with Efrat Mayor Oded Ravivi—a local echo, perhaps, of his co-authoring a 2018 piece on the Iran deal in Politico with Dubowitz.

Shapiro seems to relish this kind of contact with his opposites, foregrounded by a common and sincere shared belief in what’s best for the things he and his interlocutors care about, even if the substance of their visions might clash. “He does have a genuine appreciation and I would say love towards the state of Israel which was not found in anyone else in the Obama administration,” Pieprz said.

At the same time, the dialogue might have been possible because the settlers didn’t see Shapiro as being particularly dangerous. The ex-ambassador may well believe in—and might soon have the chance to implement—policies that would result in Pieprz’s community being evacuated at gunpoint or becoming part of a new Palestinian state. Did Pieprz and Shapiro ever talk about this? Pieprz didn’t seem to believe these potential final peace conditions, pushed by the Obama administration in multiple rounds of failed negotiations, were worth worrying about all that much. “I don’t know whether even someone like Dan honestly believes he’s going to see it,” said Pieprz.

After Donald Trump’s victory, Shapiro initially decided to remain in Israel for a few months after his posting, staying with his wife and three children as the country’s school year wrapped up. But he rapidly took on new roles in Israel. In March of 2017, Shapiro became an adviser to the Herzliya-based hedge fund ION Asset Management; he’s also listed as a principal for WestExec Advisors, a consulting firm co-founded by Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s newly sworn-in secretary of state, and Michele Flournoy and staffed with Obama administration foreign policy alumni. According to the American Prospect, one of WestExec’s Israeli clients was Windward, an artificial intelligence company whose board included Gabi Ashkenazi, the former IDF chief of staff and Israel’s current foreign minister.

Shapiro has also advised and sought investors for early-stage Israeli startups. As the ex-ambassador explained during an appearance at the Jerusalem Post’s virtual conference in September of 2020, he had been “getting very involved in promoting American companies trying to succeed in Israel and helping Israeli companies succeed in the United States.”

Shapiro’s best-known affiliation was with INSS, a Tel Aviv University-based think tank largely consisting of retired senior diplomatic, intelligence, and military leadership and led by Amos Yadlin, a former IDF military intelligence chief and one of the pilots who bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Yadlin and Shapiro had known each other professionally, meeting several times when Yadlin was still in government and Shapiro was a leading Middle East official on Obama’s NSC. INSS is not an overtly political organization, and does not play a partisan political role the way think tanks in the United States sometimes do. Instead, it is associated with Israel’s military, diplomatic, and intelligence establishment, which is increasingly considered a check on Netanyahu and the Israeli right.

Yadlin was an opponent of the Iran Nuclear Deal, and INSS has published material pushing for a more unilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace than what the Israeli left or many Democrats would support. At the same time, Yadlin is one of a diminishing number of center-left figures with national gravitas and someone whom Kurtzer describes as “a strategic thinker who also had the experience of doing.”

That Yadlin never had much of a political career of his own—despite being discussed as possible defense minister in an Isaac Herzog-led government during the 2015 Israeli elections—doesn’t mean he isn’t a shrewd operator: Yadlin is said to have the ear, and certainly the respect, of both Netanyahu and his leading alternative, Benny Gantz. Yadlin also has good relationships with a broad range of figures in Washington. “Yadlin has always been very good at kind of triangulating American politics and American policy,” notes Dubowitz. Both Republican funder Roger Hertog and the Democratic Party megadonor Haim Saban serve on the INSS International Board of Trustees.

Shapiro was the first American official of his stature to have a long-term affiliation with INSS, which provided an ideal perch for Shapiro to continue many of the same types of activities he undertook as ambassador—this time as a kind of public diplomat without portfolio, traveling around the country and meeting with people across Israel’s political and social spectrum. Shapiro kept a self-imposed four-month media blackout after leaving the ambassadorship, in order not to create the impression he was undermining his successor, David Friedman. In time, though, Shapiro stayed recognizable in part because of his visibility in the Israeli media, where he frequently discussed events in the United States and in U.S.-Israel relations in Hebrew. “If something happens in America, I’ll turn on the radio at 7 a.m. and there’s Dan,” says former prime ministerial adviser Shalom Lipner, referring to Israel’s popular morning news broadcast.

Shapiro was one of the more analytical of the senior ex-Obama foreign policy officials who appeared to spend significant time on social media and talking to reporters during the Trump years— he did not tend to view Trump as a metaphysical evil, or as being incapable of constructive action. Shapiro was impressed with the efforts of Trump peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, and narrowly supported moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though not the Trump administration’s one-sided means of effectuating it. At the same time, Shapiro all but promised in a Twitter thread that a future Democratic administration would reverse Trump’s closure of the Jerusalem consulate and merger of all Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic outreach within the Jerusalem embassy. The “Deal of the Century” would also be a dead letter.

In a commentary for NPR, Shapiro declared Trump’s peace plan “unimplementable,” and appeared to warn Israelis not to grow too attached to it. “If Trump loses in November, his successor will not feel bound by it,” Shapiro wrote. An informed Israeli audience would have known that by then, Shapiro was informally advising Biden, Trump’s would-be successor. Should Israel treat the plan as U.S. policy, it risked “finding itself in a serious clash with a new administration in January 2021,” Shapiro cautioned—with the heavy implication that he might be one of the people in a position to make such a clash happen.

Similarly, the Israelis shouldn’t hope for any real peace breakthroughs elsewhere in the region, Shapiro warned, despite what the Trump administration might have been telling them. “In the end it has never gotten off the launch pad because the domestic political constraints on all the parties have continued to make this very difficult,” Shapiro said of the so-called “outside-in” approach to peacemaking during a May 2017 conference call with the Israel Policy Forum. “The problem for Israeli governments is that ... what the president seems to say is on offer ... is only available when Israel takes steps which for its own domestic political reasons are difficult.”

In August of last year, when treaties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain made the prospects for “outside-in” appear much brighter than they had in 2017, Shapiro and Yadlin emerged as two of the leading Israel-based skeptics of American plans to sell the F-35 joint strike fighter to the UAE to grease the normalization agreement between the Emirates and Israel—a position which, if adopted in Jerusalem and Washington, threatened to undo what soon became publicly known as the Abraham Accords. Even with the F-35 sale the accords were widely embraced by officials and ordinary citizens in both Israel and the Gulf, and seem likely to stand as one of the Trump administration’s few lasting achievements.

Shapiro’s party often appeared highly factionalized during much of his post-administration life in Israel, especially on the Middle East. Jake Sullivan and Ben Rhodes might have co-founded National Security Action, an anti-Trump foreign policy-focused political organization packed with former Obama administration officials, in which Shapiro sat on the advisory council. But they represent different poles of Democratic Party opinion on the region, and perhaps on the exercise of American power in general. Whether the party would embrace Shapiro’s brand of left-leaning pragmatism, or the more ideological stance embodied in Sen. Bernie Sanders, would depend on the outcome of the Democratic presidential primary, in which Shapiro was once again an early backer of the eventual winner.

By the time Biden was elected president, Shapiro had been discussing the Middle East with Tony Blinken and the former vice president’s foreign policy team for well over a year. Blinken and Shapiro are reportedly close and have known each other for over two decades, ever since they served together on the NSC at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Blinken was later deputy national security adviser when Shapiro was on the NSC during Obama’s first term. Their career paths mirror one another’s—Blinken is not a professional diplomat but a former NSC hand who advised Biden while serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s staff in the early 2000s; similarly, Shapiro was a deputy chief of staff for a Democratic senator who went straight to a senior NSC position after being on the right side of a closely contested presidential primary.

During the 2020 race Shapiro “participated in strategy calls about policy, and about the Jewish and pro-Israel community,” according to Marc Stanley, a Dallas-based Democratic Party activist and fundraiser. Shapiro phone-banked and appeared in multiple Zoom events a week during the decisive phase of the race—in terms of Jewish outreach, the only figure within the campaign who seemed to outrank Shapiro was Doug Emhoff, the husband of vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris. At one virtual event during the stretch run of the race, Matt Nosanchuk, a former Obama liaison to the Jewish community, marveled that Shapiro was “available 24/6” for anything campaign-related, despite the time difference between the United States and Israel. At another event, attended by over 1,000 Jewish communal leaders, Shapiro was the speaker who handed things off to Biden himself, who then repeatedly stated that he would be leaning on Shapiro for help once he won the presidency.

“I don’t represent the Biden campaign,” Shapiro cautioned during a June 2020 conference call for Americans for Peace Now. Yet he spoke to Jewish audiences with a unique credibility about what his candidate was likely to do once elected. Biden, Shapiro said during that event, has a “deep, I would say very personal and emotional connection to Israel ... He calls himself a Zionist. There are not very many non-Jewish politicians who openly embrace that word.”

Whether the capital that Shapiro has amassed with both Israeli and American Jewish audiences and decision-makers will be put toward a historic peace breakthrough with the Palestinians, or will simply cushion a series of conflicts and disappointments that will push Democrats further from Israel and Israel further from the United States, could end up depending on a single issue alone, one which Shapiro successfully insulated himself from during his ambassadorship: Iran.

Few people are in a position to know whether and in what fashion President Biden will try to reenter the Iran Nuclear Deal, the centerpiece of Obama’s second-term foreign policy, as he has repeatedly and publicly pledged to do. Until the new administration’s policy clarifies, no one knows whether President Biden will unilaterally lift sanctions and allow the Iranians to expand their fast-accelerating nuclear weapons program, or instead attempt to utilize the leverage the Trump administration has established over the Islamic Republic to create a breakthrough of a kind that both Iranians and Israelis might applaud. Shapiro is the only figure in the Biden Middle East policy world whom Israelis have known and lived beside for nearly a decade—when the time comes for attempting the near-impossible diplomatic balancing act of moving toward a new understanding with Tehran, Israelis and Americans might get to find out what Shapiro’s years in the Middle East have truly amounted to.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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