Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and Touro President Alan Kadish in Dialogue on the U.S., Israel and the New Middle East

Virtual Conversation Covers Policies Shaping Recent U.S. Israel Relations, from the Iran Deal to the Abraham Accords

January 11, 2021
Nachum Twerski: Good morning or good afternoon. I am Nachum Twerski, Director of Touro Talks, an online lecture series presented by Touro and worldwide experts. Thank you all for joining us today. It is a special and distinct pleasure, on behalf of our Touro presidential series to welcome Ambassador Daniel Shapiro for a conversation with Dr. Alan Kadish, president of the Touro College and University System.

The topic as you know, will be the United States, Israel and the new Middle East. As questions for this program were requested to be emailed in there will be no q&a or chat box. Thank you for sending in your questions. We have integrated them into our program. If you have additional questions during the presentations, you may continue to email them to Dr. David Luchins, chair of Touro's undergraduate political science department during the program, and we will do our best to include them as many questions as possible as time will allow. His email is And you can also find posted above for the few more minutes that this slide is on. Thank you. And now, Dr. Kadish.

Dr. Kadish: Thank you very much Nachum. Welcome to Touro Talks. I'm Dr. Alan Kadish, president of the Touro College and University System. And it's a real pleasure to be here today with Ambassador Daniel Shapiro. Boy, it's been a crazy time. We have political turmoil in the United States, in Israel, a worldwide COVID pandemic. And a not very smooth change in administrations in Washington, and elections coming up in Israel, all happening at kind of the same time. In some ways, it's both been the most interesting and disconcerting time that I can remember, at least perhaps, since 1973. So it's great to have Ambassador Shapiro here to speak about some of the issues relating to the US, Israel and the Middle East.

Most of the audience probably knows him as the former US ambassador to Israel. But I thought I'd start by welcoming him and asking him to spend a minute or two talking to us about his career. Welcome, Ambassador Shapiro.

Ambassador Shapiro: Thank you, President Kadish. So wonderful to be with you and the Touro College community. Good morning, for most of you. I'm in Israel, so it's afternoon here. And I also want to thank my good friend and colleague, David Luchins, who was sort of person who arranged this shidduch so that we could speak together. I've had a wonderful 20 plus career, year career in government. I spent a lot of time in Israel as young person, with my family and as a student, and that led to a desire to really focus on Middle East history and politics in my academic studies. After I finished college and graduate school, I came to Washington, worked on Capitol Hill for many years. I worked for the House Foreign Affairs Committee when Lee Hamilton was the chairman, for Senator Dianne Feinstein and for Senator Bill Nelson out of Florida, a couple of years in the Clinton administration as well. I have to say as a veteran of 12 years on Capitol Hill, much of it in the Senate, it was particularly heartbreaking and outraging, of course to see the insurrection that took place in the Capitol, unfortunately incited by President Trump last week, so I'm shaking like everybody else is about those events and looking forward to the rest of the transition, hopefully unfolding quickly and smoothly.

I met then Senator Obama from my home state of Illinois when he was first elected and came to the Senate 2005 and gradually became an advisor to him on the Middle East and joined his campaign in underdog in the primaries against Hillary Clinton. But he won. I went to the National Security Council as his middle east advisor for the first two and a half years and joined George Mitchell in our special envoy on Middle East peace and many other aspects of our Middle East Policy at the time. And in 2011, President Obama nominated me to be his ambassador, the United States ambassador in Israel, where I served from middle of 2011 until the end of the Obama administration. The highlight certainly of a great career, or an enjoyable career. I'm not sure if it was great. But that was certainly the highlight of it. And we stayed in Israel after that, mostly for family reasons, for our daughters to continue some of their schooling. I'm currently a visiting fellow at Israel's leading national security think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, and do a lot of consulting with US and Israeli companies and institutions that are trying to expand presence on one side of the ocean or the other.

I've been a supporter of the Biden campaign throughout, but everything I say, going forward, I should just caveat by saying I'm not involved in the Biden transition. So I'll be speaking for myself.

Dr. Kadish: When you say a supporter of the Biden campaign, did you have a formal role of any kind? Or is it sort of just personal support?

Ambassador Shapiro: It was not a formal role. It was an active role. And it was certainly coordinated with the campaign. I provided some advice on Middle East policy, I did some fundraising I was involved in outreach to the Jewish community, on behalf of the campaign often spoke as a surrogate. So it was it was active and coordinated, but not official, I guess I would say.

Dr. Kadish: great. So we got a lot of questions for this morning's talk. Actually hundreds, believe it or not. And I would say the topic that was number one, in terms of questions asked was Iran. So let's start by talking a little bit about Iran. Obviously, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the treaty with Iran was signed, during the Obama administration. You were, I believe, Ambassador to Israel at the time. It was highly controversial and particularly made more controversial by Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress. Looking back on that agreement now before we talk about going forward, and let's cut things off at the end of the Obama administration. So we isolate what's happened in the last four years for a moment, did it accomplish what you hoped it would accomplish? Did you think it was a good deal? Looking at retrospect, of course, and obviously, that's no comment on what we thought at the time. But in retrospect, did it accomplish what you hoped it would accomplish? And that's sort of a prelude to talking about where we go on this forward.

Ambassador Shapiro: Sure. Well, it's obviously an important part of those years in terms of evaluating the Obama administration's foreign policy, and also an important part of evaluating the Trump administration's and it'll be a big decision point, I think for the incoming Biden administration. I would say this about the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. First, it was not a perfect deal. There was no such thing as a perfect deal. That wouldn't have been possible. But what it did do was it bought a significant amount of time, on a problem that the Obama administration and really all US administrations have identified, along with Israel, as an unacceptable risk that is the risk of Iran, this very dangerous, very hostile, very aggressive, terrorist sponsoring regime that calls openly for Israel's destruction, and threatens many of its other neighbors to possess this technology that would be unthinkable in its hands, Iran can never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. And unfortunately, through many years, and various negotiations and various rounds of sanctions, nevertheless, the Iranian nuclear program progressed. to the point where they were within, I would say, a two to three month period of time where they could break, what's called breakout to a nuclear weapon. And so the Obama ministration, working with a lot of other governments, including quite a lot with Israel, came up with the first sanctions as incentive and then negotiations as the mechanism to try to reach an agreement that would set them back from that two to three month hair trigger breakout. And that's what the deal did. It set by removing various raw materials, uranium and centrifuges and other facilities from Iran possession, it made it so Iran could not achieve a nuclear weapon in any less than one year, and would keep them verifiably through inspections at that distance for at least a decade, probably decade and a half. That's a very, very general summary of what that deal is. So it bought time. And then that time, would be used, hopefully to find new ways of incentivizing and pressuring Iran into a negotiation that would deal with the issue on a longer term basis. I think that was always the understanding. So it was not perfect, but it did accomplish that. Or it would have accomplished that. Then in 2018, President Trump, who agreed with the criticisms of the deal that the Israeli government voiced and that some other critics voiced, decided to withdraw from the agreement, of course, it was reached in cooperation with many other governments with European governments, China, Russia, and others. So it was a major international consensus at the time it was reached.

When the US withdrew, it meant that the US no longer had that international coalition, and was really quite frankly, quite isolated in that regard. Now, the United States by reimposing, sanctions unilaterally on Iran was actually able to impose a significant amount of economic pressure. It's certainly been very painful economically for Iran. But then Iran began to violate its own commitments by enriching uranium by reinstalling centrifuges more recently, by enriching uranium to a higher level 20%, to the point where today, Iran is back to a point much much closer to achieving a nuclear weapon to three, maybe four months at the outside. So we're back to a very dangerous situation with all that implies, either they could get the nuclear weapon, there could be a nuclear arms race with other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey feeling they have to match it, or having no alternative other than a military option to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. By the way, the United States has a military option, because President Obama put one in place as a backstop if all else failed. So that's where we are today. Iran much closer to a nuclear weapon, yes, under economic pressure. But the United States also not really having a lot of support for our current policies. Israel, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf have been supportive. But no European governments have Russia, China certainly haven't. And so in, when the United States tried to advance various initiatives, like extending a UN arms embargo against Iran last fall, or getting what's called the snapback, the automatic re-triggering of sanctions called for when Iran violates its commitments, re-applied by other countries, no other country joined the United States. So we've been very isolated. What the Biden administration incoming has to deal with is that exact situation, a nuclear agreement that the United States signed and withdrew from, all other countries that were party to it still believing it is the best path. Iran, yes, under economic pressure, but much, much closer to a nuclear weapon. And, and the need, as I think they understand it for the United States to reassert leadership at an international multilateral level to address this threat. It's a very serious threat to us, to Israel to our other allies, and do it in a way that it can be sustained for the long term.

Dr. Kadish: So I think you make some very good points there. I'll try to phrase the next question delicately. What's been reported, at least in some of the press, is that the Biden administration has said that they're going to rejoin the deal. Hopefully, Iran will live up to its commitments if the US rejoins the deal, and then try to renegotiate it. Is that an accurate representation? And as I said, I'll phrase this delicately, but some have suggested that once the US rejoins a deal, there'll be no incentive for Iran to renegotiate. So that entire strategy seems difficult to understand.

Ambassador Shapiro: Right. So I'd phrase it slightly differently what President Elect Biden said during the campaign, and he and his team have reiterated since the election is that he is he the United States under his administration is prepared to re enter the JCPOA in the context of mutual compliance. So it's not, I think the sequence was slightly different in the way you phrased it, that the US would just re enter it and hope Iran comes back to mutual compliance, it would be a requirement. This would obviously have to be worked out in some sequence of mutuality, to ensure that Iran relinquished the enriched uranium relinquished deinstalled centrifuges and in other ways, put itself back into position to the JCPOA requires of it which is to be at least one year from a nuclear weapon. So at least that time is that time is restored. Now, if the US does see Iran is in compliance, and therefore re enters the deal. That does mean the United States would be required to deactivate some of the sanctions that President Trump has put in place. And so this raises the question that you raised of well, would that deprive the United States of leverage for the negotiation on the longer term deal that it that it seeks? And I would say two things.

One, two things, I think very important here. One is that, you know, one thing I think the Biden team has learned from the Trump policies indeed that unilateral US sanctions because so many other countries, respect them or won't violate them for fear of losing access to the US market can indeed be fairly effective in terms of, in economic terms, they weren't very effective in nuclear terms, but at least they did reimpose pressure on Iran. Pressure that Iran is very desperate to get out from under. So even if they are withdrawn, Iran knows that they can be reapplied at any time. And that does provide leverage, just the threat that that that policy could be returned is a is a form of leverage that Iran would have to take very seriously. But here's where I think we've gotten already a little bit hung up in the debate about what's to come. Indeed, there may be a disagreement between the United States and Israel over this question. It's not an unimportant question, but it's essentially a preliminary question of should the starting point for the policy be returning to the JCPOA. if there's mutual compliance, or should it be the point of which President Trump left it. But in fact, again, that's very really very preliminary, even if we're back in the jcpoa, it has five to 10 different parts of it a five to 10 more years to run. And what President elect Biden has also said is that his real strategic objective here is not to get back to the jcpoa. And just stay there, it's actually to negotiate with Iran a much longer term agreement, something that's much greater duration, something that is much broader in its application, not just to nuclear technologies, but to other threatening technologies like ballistic missiles. And that addresses Iran's malign behaviors throughout the region. And that has much stricter enforcement upon it. Now, that is a kind of agreement. I'm not saying it's easy to reach. But that is a policy on which there's actually great convergence between US and Israeli and Gulf Arab and European positions. And what should be the goal is to get that coalition back together, focusing on a strategic objective that would serve all of those interests, and applying the necessary combination of incentives and pressures, and, and sanctions and negotiations that could perhaps get Iran into into such an agreement. It's not easy. But that's a strategic goal that I think we can all agree on. And whether we're starting from where Trump left off, pressure on Iran, but Iran closer to a nuclear weapon, or the JCPOA reapplied, maybe some of that pressure removed, but Iran further from a nuclear weapon, that strategic objective is one we have in common.

Dr. Kadish: So that makes a lot of sense, and is perhaps more encouraging, than anything we've heard in a while. So I very much appreciate your sharing that with us. So let's turn away from Iran for a second to what's part of the title of today's Touro Talks, which is the new Middle East. Before we talk about some of the more recent events, I want to ask you sort of a more fundamental question about your view on relations, not only in the Middle East, but foreign policy in general. One of the things that's been clear, but also potentially challenging about the Middle East is, with the exception of Israel, both among friends and sort of adversaries or non friends, let's put it that way, is that there aren't very many liberal democratic regimes in the Middle East. Over the past decade, through a couple of administrations, there have been attempts, the so called Arab Spring, and others to try to have democratic, democracy established itself in the Middle East. And in fact, if anything, one might argue that there's less democracy in the Middle East than there was a decade ago, if you look at Egypt and Turkey, for example, they seem less democratic than they were a decade ago. So what I want to ask you both in the Middle East and in general, as a foreign policy expert, is how should the United States balance dealing with monarchies, autocratic regimes, theocracies versus our pursuit, which I hope is our mutual goal of establishing democracy and freedom throughout the world? How do we balance that and that's particularly relevant to some of the questions that will come up about the new Middle East. So perhaps, with your expertise, you could tell us a little bit about that.

Ambassador Shapiro: It's a perpetual dilemma, not only in the Middle East and other parts of the world as well, but certainly it has been in the Middle East for decades. The United States has clear interests, security interests, including ensuring the security of Israel, as well as our own broader security interests, economic interests at one time that was mostly about securing the free flow of energy from the Persian Gulf and that's still important, less important to the US economy itself because we provide so much of our own energy but certainly to the global economy and, and broader interests for stability and access for our forces as needed to provide for those other interests. That means that the United States would, has often developed partnerships with non democratic regimes. Again, this is not unique to the Middle East and the United States is not in any position to dictate the form of government of any individual country. And so every administration at some degree or another has found it in our interests and necessary to build partnerships with countries like Egypt, like Jordan, like various Gulf states, even while we differ with them about the form of government that they, they pursue. And in various times, and at various times in various ways, various administrations have obviously urged those governments also to undertake a process of reform, even if it's gradual, to gradually open the political space so that different voices can be heard, including those who are critical of the government. to strengthen the rights of opposition politicians to make their voices heard, to strengthen the ability of citizens to participate in civil society, that is not under the total control of the authorities. And certainly to protest the abuse of human rights, whether it's against opponents of the regime, whether against activists for women's rights, whether it's against religious or ethnic minorities, or any of the like, and finding that balance has obviously been difficult and cannot say, has met with a tremendous amount of success. Certainly, on the reform agenda. you mentioned, the Arab Spring events of 2011, I was very involved in the first portion of that when I was still at the White House. And the Obama administration tried to articulate a common set of principles and values that it would support and saw certain progress made, let's say, in Tunisia, which now has a much more democratic system than it certainly had been and has had before, but also saw other attempts to support that kind of reform in Egypt and Bahrain, in Yemen, and then in Syria, collapse either into even even even more autocratic regimes, or civil war and chaos and tremendous bloodshed. So it's not been a story I think that anybody can feel very satisfied with. And yet the dilemma remains, and I think an incoming administration will deal with that as well, what what President Elect Biden has said is that he does intend to sustain partnerships that have historically served our interests. US Egyptian partnership, which really grew out of the Egyptian Israeli peace treaty, Camp David, and the US Jordanian Partnership, which grew out which which was strengthened, let's say it was already in place, but certainly strengthened after the US, the Israeli Jordanian peace agreement, and Gulf partnerships as well. But that same administration will also be outspoken, and hold to account, even our partners in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, for respecting the rights, the universal rights of their citizens, for free speech for free association for political openness for transparent governance. And there have been a lot of cases in the last several years, certainly in the Trump years, when those issues have seemed to be completely absent from our dialogue with those countries. And so it's going to continue to be an effort to balance that. To advance the reform agenda, while sustaining the partnerships that do serve our other interests.

Dr. Kadish: So let's turn now to some of the more recent events, the Abraham Accords. Do you think they're viable? Will they make a difference in the Middle East in the long term? What's your view of that?

Ambassador Shapiro: I think the Abraham Accords are a very positive development. And it's something that we have, all of us who have worked on the Middle East for different administrations, I think, see as an outgrowth and a positive development that's consistent with a long standing US policy pursuit. That is that Israel deserves the recognition of its neighbors. It deserves to be treated like any other country. And it is. So it's the right thing to do. It's the right thing to see Israel recognized and develop those relationships. It's also good for US interests. It's good for the United States, when our various partners in a region, as challenging and unstable as the Middle East can work together and work together more openly. Now, it's not completely new in the sense that Israel and many of these Arab countries have had quiet sub rosa security and intelligence dialogues for many years. That was certainly true between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Israel and other Gulf states, Israel and Morocco, long before the formal normalization of relations. But obviously, there's more you can do when it's public, there's more you can do when you open embassies and open streams of trade and tourism and technology partnerships. And in fact, what is quite notable, particularly about the UAE and to some degree of the Bahrain, normalization agreements is how different of a character they look like they will take on than the cold peace model that followed the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties. With Egypt and Jordan, there have been scrupulously upheld peace treaties and close security cooperation between Israel and those two neighbors. But very little societal communication, very little People to People connections. And Israel partly as a result of that it remains very unpopular and a subject of controversy in Egyptian and Jordanian politics. In the UAE, what we're seeing is already a rush of partnerships between banks and academic institutions, and medical organizations, hospitals and, and news organizations and the UAE population, it's small, but nevertheless, finding itself very open and curious and welcoming about Israelis visiting the UAE about their opportunities to visit Israel, about the connections in business and in technology in tourism and trade that they can build. And that is a very stabilizing development. So this is, is very positive. What, when the first of these agreements, the UAE agreement was announced in August, it may have been the only time during the campaign that then vice president and our president elect Biden had something positive to say about a Trump administration, foreign policy initiatives. He didn't hesitate not even for an hour or two, he immediately welcomed the agreement. He said this was very much something that he felt fulfilled a long standing US objective, including one he himself had worked on, and that he would work to expand it and challenge other nations to join and keep pace. He said two other things, which I think are notable. One was that he welcomed that the UAE agreement seemed to, not seemed to, it did sideline what was being talked about all during the spring and summer, which was the possible unilateral Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and it took that off the table. And he welcomed that, because that was something he felt would have been very damaging to prospects for a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But he also said that he believes that these new normalized relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, could be, if used effectively a source of positive momentum on the Israeli Palestinian track, and he would hope to try to generate that as well.

Dr. Kadish: But let's let's talk about the Israeli Palestinian issue for a moment. Obviously, it's been going on for a long time, decades of leaders in the United States worldwide and Israel and the Palestinians have tried to reach a solution. Do you see a change in the dynamic now that would change things in terms of our ability to reach a solution? Where do you see that going? And what do you see, what would you think the next steps ought to be in terms of the Israeli Palestinian relationship?

Ambassador Shapiro: So I've been working on this issue most of my career, I came to Washington in 1993, shortly before the Oslo Accords were announced and then worked to support them during several years on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton administration, worked on the hill again during the Bush years as the roadmap and the Annapolis process unfolded, and then was a full participant in the negotiations undertaken by George Mitchell, in the first term, and John Kerry in the second term of the Obama administration. So this is something I followed closely and believe in very strongly. I believe that a two state solution remains the only outcome that can actually resolve and end the Israeli Palestinian conflict. There are other pathways and maybe one could even call some of them outcomes or resolutions, none of them resolve the conflict. And almost all of them mean that Israel's security and its status as a Jewish and democratic state. And that important contribution to the common values partnership between Israel and the United States would all be imperiled. Palestinian legitimate rights to statehood in their own could not be realized without it, so I remain and maybe I’m one of the last, but I remain a strong believer in a two state solution that is both necessary and still possible. But it's not easy. And I certainly would not claim that we are in a moment when it is viable to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the table for a final status negotiation with any expectation that it could succeed. There's just simply too much mistrust between the current leaders, the same leaders who have had several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations. There's too much distrust at the societal level between Israelis who believe, and understandably, after the Second Intifada, after the disengagement from Gaza, which was followed by Hamas' takeover, and the rockets fired. So the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, the Rockets of Gaza, and some of the delegitimization, that continues to be voiced by Palestinian leaders even in the West Bank, that they may not have a partner on the Palestinian side. And of course, by Palestinians who've seen settlements continue to expand in the West Bank into territory that they believe needs to be part of a Palestinian state. So there's a great deal of mistrust, the positions between the parties are, are far apart, and I would not counsel, any administration to immediately try to resume such a negotiation, I think it would be very unlikely to succeed and could almost certainly, almost certainly when it collapses could collapse spectacularly, which often produces a spasm of violence in its wake.

However, there are plenty of opportunities to take a different approach to say, look, the goal in this phase after four years of a Trump administration, that clearly was not committed to that two state outcome. And all those other obstacles in the mutual distrust between the two sides, there are still plenty of opportunities to take actions that will help keep a two state solution alive, that will help keep it viable and achievable. Not for negotiation now, but for negotiation later, when conditions on the ground have improved, when attitudes have softened when different leaders may be in place who don't have the same history with one another and may be able to take a different approach. So there's many ways one can approach that. there's certainly improvements in the economic conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, there are strengthening of the security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There's additional pressures that can be put on Hamas. There are new people to people efforts now that are going to be funded by a major infusion of a new piece of legislation called the Middle East Peace Partnership Act, which was just passed. Named after Nita Lowey a former Congresswoman who just retired to help support programs that get Israelis and Palestinians together in non governmental ways that can build community, and business and intellectual and academic and societal connections that can undergird what the political leadership needs to support them. And as I mentioned earlier, there's an opportunity to get Arab states who have normalized their relations with Israel involved in a very positive way, the UAE, just to take one example, which has really embraced its relationship with Israel, it's done so without any hesitation or, or withholding anything, is going to be in a very different position to have a dialogue with the Israeli government and the Israeli public about what is possible, and what Israel's contribution could be, together with its new Arab partners, to a new future between Israelis and Palestinians. And at the same time, the UAE, because it has resources could be very influential not only in supporting Palestinian economic and institutional development, but even putting some positive pressure on Palestinians about how some of their positions need to be adjusted, whether it's delegitimization, or incitement to violence or paying salaries, which shouldn't be paid to Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons. So there are real opportunities for these Arab states. That's just one example. There will hopefully be many others who can become partners to Israelis and Palestinians at the same time, who can sit at the same table with both of them in ways they never had. And with US leadership, can take actions that improve the conditions on the ground, improve relations and attitudes between Israelis and Palestinians. So that the next time it makes sense to actually try negotiation, which could be in one year or two years or five years, it could be beyond the term of a Biden administration. It's still viable, it's still possible to achieve a two state solution that would actually be an end to the conflict.

Dr. Kadish: So we've talked indirectly a lot about us Israel relations in the last half hour. Let me turn to that a little bit more directly, particularly some of the things that have happened in the Trump administration, and how you see that happening going forward. So first of all, my sources tell me, David Luchins, who was mentioned as someone who introduced us, that you were involved in helping negotiate the details of the Jerusalem Embassy Act a quarter century ago. So it obviously took a while to move the embassy. It was that move was highly criticized. I think that's one case where one might say, in retrospect, perhaps the criticism was a little overblown, because it didn't result in massive violence or upheaval. So looking back now, do you think it's a good idea that the embassy was moved? What do you think the Biden administration will or should do regarding the US Embassy at this at this point?

Ambassador Shapiro: So that's how David Luchins and I met, when I was working for senator dianne feinstein, and he was working for Senator Moynihan, of blessed memory. And, indeed, in 1995 when the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act passed, there was, it passed, it was Congress requiring the embassy to move to Jerusalem at penalty withholding some state department funds for the building embassies worldwide. But it also provided the president with the waiver authority, which meant that President could say for six months at a time, they would delay implementation of the move, if it serves the national security interests in the United States. That didn't actually come into force until 1999. By then I was working in the Clinton administration and the Office of Legislative Affairs at the National Security Council and David was still with Senator Moynihan. And we worked together on when President Clinton for the first time enacted that waiver, and every six months from 1999, on first president Clinton and then President Bush and then President Obama. And then even one time President Trump enacted that waiver to say the national security interests of the United States, broadly speaking, to enable the possibility of a negotiated agreement on between Israelis and Palestinians, including on Jerusalem, and perhaps because of their concern of the risk of some violence or other upheaval, if the United States acted unilaterally, would delay it. So that was a common policy through four administrations. Finally, President Trump in December of 2017, said he wasn't going to enact a waiver anymore, and he recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Now, I was probably in a minority among Democrats out of government, saying at the time that I thought, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was, was a perfectly appropriate thing to do. It now sits in West Jerusalem. And I judged it on the following basis, not only the fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital, it always has been Israel's capital, and it always will be Israel's capital. And there's no scenario in a two state solution where Jerusalem would not be Israel's capital.

What is of course, at issue in the negotiations between Israel and Palestinians, what would ultimately need to be resolved is whether or not there would be a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and some sharing of the city, but the embassy was moved to a location in West Jerusalem. And there's no circumstance where that would not be continued to be Israeli territory. And as the US ambassador, even during an administration that didn't recognize Jerusalem formally, and the embassy was in Tel Aviv, almost every day I drove to Jerusalem, and worked with the Israeli prime minister and Knesset and President in their offices. So it's not as if functionally we didn't understand Jerusalem was and always would be Israel's capital. My criticism of the Trump administration at the time, was not the decision to move the embassy, it was what was sort of lacking from that decision. It was acknowledging that would take place as part of a policy that would build toward an expectation on the two state solution, including an opportunity for Palestinians to have their capital in Jerusalem all to be negotiated. But that actually should been articulated as well, alongside the the move, which in and of itself was very appropriate. Some people did raise the risk of terrorism and violence in Israel or in Palestinian areas or, or elsewhere in the region, as a result, actually, the day of the actual ceremony to move the embassy there was a lot of violence along the border between Israel and Gaza. So, but much of it, fomented by Hamas, and there was a significant loss of life. But it didn't happen more broadly than that on a sustained basis over time or in other parts of the region. And so, you know, it's true that some people maybe anticipated something that didn't happen. It was not my, part of my response or critique.

My critique was as I stated or on other grounds, what I think a Biden administration is likely to do, what what I believe the president elect during the campaign was that the embassy would remain in Jerusalem will remain in Jerusalem. And so that's quite, I think, quite a settled issue. What I also think is that they will restore a commitment to a two state solution that looks a lot more like the version of it, that was previously attempted to be negotiated in the 20 years that preceded the Trump administration, under President Clinton, Bush, and Obama, all of those administrations had a different concept of what that outcome looked like. It has never been achieved. And at least two of those administrations never really spelled it out in a lot of detail. But it's not the Trump plan. And, you know, if Palestinians and others and Israelis as well understand that the embassy is not going anywhere, that there's no change or the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. But that is expected to fit within a policy that includes a two state solution, including Palestinian opportunities for their capital in Jerusalem. I think that's a different understanding of what of what the meaning of the move of the MC is.

Dr. Kadish: So we talked a little bit about some of the disastrous events in American politics, just obliquely, Israel's entering its fourth election in three years. Do you think that's going to be important in the future of US Israel relationships? And how do you see that playing out?

Ambassador Shapiro: Fourth election in two years, actually. And look, it's I think any Israeli would tell you, it's a sign of a political system that's having trouble functioning. It's not just that they keep having elections. But during this period, they've gone now two years without a budget. They've had to manage through the Coronavirus crisis, both the health and the economic crisis. With a barely functioning coalition, which has now now collapsed. And its left a lot of Israelis very concerned and very troubled about the health of their own democracy. As a non Israeli, I really don't get involved in Israeli politics. I'm an observer of them. But I hope very much that our Israeli friends find a way to through this coming election, to get to a somewhat more stable situation, I think that is what all Israelis want to see a government that can serve out his term that can function that can reach hard decisions, pass a budget, and and not go through this sort of unstable political period. It's obviously also helpful for US Israeli relations when there is that kind of political stability. I think even the Trump administration found over the last two years, it's been difficult to reach agreements and carry through sustained initiatives on a number of things because they didn't always know who was going to be at the table. Three months later, they didn't know if the acting government had the authority to carry out certain decisions, or there was a coalition government that had very divided positions on key issues. The question of annexation that I mentioned earlier, was one in which the Prime Minister and the Foreign and Defense Ministers of the blue and white party had very different positions. So that was something the Trump administration had to try to navigate.

So obviously, for a Biden administration, this, that will take office while this election campaign is just getting underway. The election is March 23. Normally, it takes six to eight weeks after an election for an Israeli government to be formed. So best case scenario we're talking May or June before there is a stable and empowered Israeli government. And that means that in the early months, the Biden administration is going to have to work with this government in transition acting caretaker government, I have no doubt they will do so. And all the security cooperation that can go on between professionals and both governments will continue without interruption. But as far as bigger policy decisions go, it may be hard to reach some until the government is formed. I also have no doubt that a president like Biden, who has a long standing friendship and relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu he's worked with him in all sorts of capacities since the 1980s. And they know each other well. And they they can have very friendly, but very frank conversations on all kinds of issues, has great respect for Israel's citizens and their democratic process. And so whoever is the Israeli Prime Minister during that period, and once that period is complete, I have no doubt that President Elect Biden will work closely and respectfully with that with that person, in hopes of strengthening this relationship in ways that benefit both countries.

Dr. Kadish: That's great. Let's talk a little bit about the US Israel relationship. It's obviously been the most crucial relationship for the government of Israel for decades, and is, I think, an important part of US foreign policy. And that relationship has always had strong bipartisan support. In recent years, there have been some who've been concerned about an erosion of that bipartisan support, particularly you mentioned you were a Democrat in the Democratic Party. So how should how concerned should we be about that? And what can Israel and its supporters do to try to mitigate that trend if it is indeed going on? And if it's a concern?

Ambassador Shapiro: Right, it's definitely one of the strengths, really the heart and the strength of the US Israel relationship, is that it has been a source of bipartisan consensus. And that means that when different parties take control of the White House, and when there's changes of leadership in the Congress, that the fundamentals of the relationship have not changed. The strong commitment to Israel security, including expressed through significant US military assistance to Israel, the strong commitment to Israel's legitimacy and standing up to any challenge to its legitimacy, wherever that occurs, and the strong commitment to helping Israel achieve peace with the Palestinians and with its other neighbors. These are our fundamentals that run as a common thread through administrations of both parties and congressional control by both parties over many decades. And they're really, to be commended. And I think it's in everybody's interest that they be strengthened. And we have seen some stresses on that in recent years. I'll get to in a moment, what you asked about if there are changes of views within the Democratic Party, but I think it's worth pointing out that President Trump is probably the first president who has genuinely tried to make Israel a partisan political wedge issue. He spoke about democrats as an anti Israel party and anti semitic party, he seemed to try to use this issue for his own political purpose to strengthen his standing with certain parts of his voting base, and even expressed bewilderment that any American Jew could ever vote for a Democrat, after all he did for Israel. He even accused us of disloyalty, which is quite a word, has a very ugly, anti semitic history. for Jews to be accused of disloyalty. I think, it was disloyalty to him, although it wasn't clear exactly what his what his meaning was. So that has certainly put some stresses on it. And it's at a time when we should point out, of course, that the Israeli public, and the Israeli government found much that they liked in the Trump administration's policies. And so there was a lot of identification with him a lot of very, very strong praise for him, even in a kind of a maybe an excessive embrace, because of his middle east policies without necessarily thinking about, how that reflected to the many Americans who were so troubled by his presidency. It also is true that within the Democratic Party, there are some new voices, who are not maybe don't necessarily articulate their views on Israel the same way I have. And I think that had been the traditional party positions, I don't think we should overstate the influence of those voices or their numbers, at least not in elected offices there, you know, one has to look at societal trends as well. But in the last Congress, which was in the House of Representatives, which was under democratic leadership, on two or three occasions, the Congress spoke to this issue, passed resolutions and, and otherwise address the questions of Israel. And in each case, the positions that were expressed with broad broad, I would say 90 plus percent support of the Democratic caucus and mostly on a bipartisan basis as well. Were consistent with those same fundamentals strong support for Israel security, full, unconditional provision of the assistance, the $38 billion military assistance package that was negotiated during the Obama administration and is now being implemented over 10 years. strong commitment to defend Israel's legitimacy anywhere, whether in the face of Palestinian delegitimization, or the United Nations or against the BDS movement in the United States, and strong support for helping Israel achieve peace between all of its neighbors, including a two state solution with the Palestinians and of course, recognition of the very serious threats Israel faces from Iran from Hezbollah from Hamas, and from other actors.

Those I think, still reflect the broadest and I would say most mainstream positions within the Democratic Party. I think they still are points of bipartisan consensus. I know they reflect Joe Biden's positions, his record on Israel is decades long. Nobody will tell him what he thinks about this issue. It is consistent with all of those principles of security, legitimacy, pursuit of peace, that I've previously mentioned. And my hope and belief is that he will actually try to restore some of that bipartisan consensus that lifting up of the issue of the US Israel relationship out of the kind of the the, the the roughest parts of American partisan politics, and try to treat it as something that that should be attended to with care and with commitment to those principles, by both by both parties, if he has partners on both sides. I think that's possible. And so I think that's what advocates for the US Israel relationship, would it be wise to be attentive to encouraging members of both parties, to rally to those principles to re state them to find bi-party partners across the aisle for all kinds of initiatives that that strengthen it that broaden it that build it out in not just in security and, and peace agenda, but in economic cooperation in technology cooperation, in medical cooperation, in every other form of initiative that actually strengthens strengthens both countries. And I think the Israeli government will also, again, they will find a friendly administration. But I think it will be important to relate to that as an administration that indeed has some differences from its predecessor, if everything is measured by we liked something that Trump did and so we want to the Biden administration to do the exact same thing. That's probably not a very realistic expectation. But if there's an understanding that the broad principles are and foundations are strongly upheld, in a professional and an open dialogue between the two countries, differences can be narrowed, disagreements can be managed. And they can be overcome, and many, many opportunities to expand cooperation, as I mentioned, an intelligence in technology in medical and economic cooperation in many other fields, can be can be advanced.

One area where we'll have to work together, it's a new area is on the challenge of China. China is as a global strategic rival to the United States is something that will really dominate American foreign policy for the next generation or longer. And so all US partners, will need to be in a, in a very vigorous dialogue with the United States about how they should adjust their own relationship with China, China has been an important economic partner, as a market and as a source of investment for Israel. But to do pursue those relations, as the United States continues to pursue economic relations with China in ways that are also mindful of the challenges China proposes, imposes, and indeed, in doing that, there are actually new opportunities that come with that of Israel being part of a coalition and a cohort of democracies and, and allied nations who stand for certain principles who steer their technologies for certain for certain uses, and avoiding its use for other other less savory ends. And in fact, that could open up a lot of new streams of investment to Israel and markets for Israel as well. That can be very much be to their interest. So this is a just sort of a new area where Israel, the United States need to and I think can find a lot of common, cooperative efforts.

Dr. Kadish: That's great. So I'll ask you one last question before we close. The UN has been a complicated issue for Israel, obviously, the UN created Israel and supported it. But there have been some rough times at the UN for Israel. So tell us a little bit about what you know about the new ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield because some of the most pro Israel advocates in American foreign policy have been a collection of ambassadors, such as Patrick Moynihan, Jean Kirkpatrick, Nikki Haley, who, regardless of what administration they've been in, have been strong supporters of Israel and and strongly fought anti Israel bias at the UN. So what can we expect from the new ambassador who comes from a little bit of a different background? Not I'm not talking about demographics, but rather, you know, as a career diplomat from the Foreign Service, as opposed to a political appointee who had experience in other areas like Congress.

Ambassador Shapiro: Right, I don't know Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield well. We have met but I don't know her extremely well. I do know that her reputation within the US foreign service is simply at the highest level in terms of the respect and the, and the esteem with which she's held by her colleagues. Most of her career has been around Africa. She was an ambassador in I think Liberia, if I'm not mistaken. She served in many other African posts. She was the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. That's her her real area of expertise during which she certainly had occasions to work with local Israeli diplomats as well. But she hasn't worked extensively on the Middle East. Nevertheless, she comes from, I think, a very deep tradition within US foreign policy that sees Israel as a critical partner, a critical ally, an ally deserving of and it's in the US interest to support and stand up for whenever it's unfairly criticized or singled out or challenged, certainly its legitimacy is challenged or right to defend itself is challenged. She's also an extremely experienced diplomat in carrying out the policies of the administration for whom she she who she works. And since we know that Joe Biden comes from that same tradition, and speaks about it with passion and emotion. And it's been reflected in the dozens of trips he's taken to Israel through the years and the personal relationships, he's forged with nine Israeli Prime Ministers, and his own personal personal involvement in advancing Israel's recognition in the Arab world. And in supporting all the security cooperation advances from Iron Dome, to the F 35. To the $38 billion mou.

That was signed in the Obama administration, we know that Joe Biden is going to come with those same priorities. And so we know he'll give his instruction to his ambassador, we know she is a very talented and professional Ambassador is going to carry them out to the letter. So it doesn't mean there won't be obviously rough moments in the UN that's, I think something we all know is that the voices that unfairly single out, Israel often see the UN as their favorite sort of Court of Appeal, if you will, or, or arena where they like to raise those issues the Palestinians have often turned to that arena, things may be a little different. In light of the Abraham Accords. The UAE, for example, is being talked about as a possible member of the Security Council at the UN starting next year, that hasn't been finalized. But if indeed, that's the case, it would be the first time you'd have an Arab state at the UN Security Council, that is in this kind of open, normalized relations with Israel, Egypt and Jordan have done it, but it's not quite the same. And so maybe there's a possibility to shift the focus and the tenor of that discussion. And again, with a Biden administration, articulating, you know, in a more traditional American Way, I think, different from the Trump administration, that commitment to two states, something that Palestinians, I hope will see as an opportunity for them, if they work cooperatively and productively with, it may also be a way of discouraging them from using the UN as that arena to fight those battles. And to get back into the the business of improving conditions on the ground and eventually working toward direct bilateral negotiations. So I have no doubt that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield will be a great ally, to the pro Israel community to the Jewish community. I know she's looking forward to getting to New York and getting to know the many people who follow these issues closely and the community there, and I expect she’’ll be a great success.

Dr. Kadish: Well, thanks a lot. It's really been great talking to you. We could probably go on for several hours. Because as we pointed out, there's a lot to talk about. But it's been great sharing your insights and time with us. Really appreciate it. And I have to say it's been encouraging because there's a lot of concern about the future in the world right now. And I think you've provided a balanced and reassuring voice. And maybe we'll get to see you back in the United States soon. Have a great day. Well, thank you.

Ambassador Shapiro: it was great opportunity. I really appreciate it. Thanks so much. Take care.

In the midst of political turmoil in the United States, an election campaign in Israel and a worldwide pandemic, Touro President Dr. Alan Kadish hosted a virtual dialogue Sunday with Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. The conversation took place on Zoom with an audience of more than 600 people.

The dialogue covered many of the policies that have shaped recent U.S.-Israel relations, from the JOCPA (“Iran Deal”) to the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords. Ambassador Shapiro noted that President-elect Biden has already pledged to keep the Embassy in Jerusalem and build on the Abraham Accords.

Daniel Shapiro served with distinction for a quarter of a century on the staff of the White House and several members of Congress and on the National Security Council before becoming the United States Ambassador to Israel in 2010. He is now a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. While he has advised and supported President-Elect Biden through the years, he stressed that the views he shared were his own.  

The Iran Nuclear Deal

Dr. Kadish opened the conversation by asking about the controversial Iran nuclear deal. Signed in 2015 by Iran and several world powers including the United States, the deal placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. President Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018. Iran began ignoring limitations on its nuclear program a year later. President-elect Biden has pledged to return the United States to the deal if Iran resumes compliance. 

Mr. Shapiro said that the deal, while not perfect, was designed to buy time to deal with what had been identified as the totally unacceptable risk of Iran having a nuclear weapon. Through the deal, Iran could not obtain a nuclear weapon in less than one year, allowing the United States and its allies time to incentivize and pressure Iran to stop nuclear weapon development.  

After the Trump administration withdrew from the deal, Shapiro explained that the United States was isolated. Other nations, including Russia, China and the European Union did not withdraw from the deal. The United States ramped up sanctions, but Iran responded by enriching uranium.

“We are back to where we were. Iran is closer to having nuclear weapons,” Ambassador Shapiro said.  

As for the future, Mr. Shapiro said that President-elect Biden has stated that he is agreeable to re-entering the deal in the context of mutual compliance, with ultimate goal of a longer, more strategic agreement. Iran would need to relinquish enriched uranium and de-install centrifuges. The Biden administration still has leverage. Mr. Shapiro explained, “Biden has learned that unilateral sanctions can be effective, and Iran knows that they can be reapplied any time.” 

The Abraham Accords

Mr. Shapiro also said that President-Elect Biden welcomed the Abraham Accords, the peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. What is notable now, he said, is how different this deal is from the cold peace between Israel and Jordan or Israel and Egypt, which affected governments much more than the citizens of Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

“In the UAE we already seeing a rush of partnerships between banks, hospitals, universities, tech and tourism. The UAE population is very open and welcoming,” he said. 

Bipartisan support for Israel has always been a tenet of American diplomacy. Recent political rancor and partisanship in United States politics has directed attention to some Democrats who articulate a different view. However, Ambassador Shapiro stressed, the vast majority of  Congress and the Democratic party leaders have continued to consistently support Israel.

He noted that a Biden administration will continue to reflect this strong bipartisan support for Israel’s security, a strong commitment to fight challenges to Israel at the United Nations, overwhelming opposition the the BDS movement, recognition of the threats Israel faces and support for a two-state solution.

“These are still the mainstream positions of the Democratic party and I think bipartisan,” he said.