14/09/17 - Medford/Somerville, MA - Daniel Shapiro, appointed by former President Barack Obama as the Ambassador to Israel, spoke at Cabot ASEAN Auditorium about foreign policy on Sep. 14, 2017. (Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily)

Former US Ambassador to Israel speaks on foreign policy, Middle East issues

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro spoke to a crowded ASEAN Auditorium at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy yesterday.

Shapiro served as ambassador under the Obama administration from July 2011 to January 2017 and, among other positions, served as the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council

In a conversation moderated by Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris, Shapiro addressed a wide range of issues related to his personal career experience, answering questions about his decision to transition from a more academic focus on Middle East policy to a more active diplomatic role and about his experience as an intermediary in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shapiro also discussed the broader issues of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. He talked about how he has seen Israel change over his lifetime and its transition from a vulnerable new state to a more self-confident power in the region. Shapiro expressed support for a two-state solution and his belief that it is still possible despite increasing complications. Shapiro also met with three student groups before the main session.

The event was part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Distinguished Speaker Series and was cosponsored by the Fletcher School, the School of Arts and Sciences Political Science Department and International Relations Program, and the Institute for Global Leadership. Dean of Tisch College Alan Solomont gave introductory remarks.

In a smaller interview before the main event, Shapiro answered questions about the future of diplomacy and U.S. policy objectives in the Middle East, echoing many of the themes discussed at the larger lecture. 

“When President Trump was elected, there was an expectation in Israel that there was [going to] be a sea change of U.S. policy, meaning that the United States would no longer be trying to achieve a two-state solution or try to seek limitations on Israeli settlements in the West Bank,” Shapiro said. “What became clear after he actually became president in January was that the policy was much more one of continuity of previous administrations on those issues.”

Although Shapiro said that he is not a strong supporter of the Trump administration, he favors most of its foreign policy approach toward Israel.

“It certainly [includes] strong support for Israel’s security, [and] it includes strong support for helping achieve a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Shapiro said.

However, Shapiro emphasized his belief that the administration should be strongly advocating for a two-state solution to clear up ambiguity about U.S. policy priorities. According to Shapiro, a two-state solution is what the United States is working towards, even if Trump does not always use this term.

“There is no real other outcome that could achieve the goals of peace and self-determination for Palestinians and security for Israel, and openings between [the] Israeli-Arab world that they do talk about other than a two-state solution,” Shapiro said.

Addressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to continue expanding settlements in the West Bank, Shapiro said that he and the Obama administration had always viewed such statements as counterproductive to the peace process.

“We consistently during the Obama administration, and so did every other administration before us, made clear that we viewed the expansion of West Bank settlements as unhelpful to the achievement of a two-state solution,” Shapiro said. “It’s unhelpful both because it changes the map over time … but also because of the political impact and the way it suggests to Palestinians that decisions are being made before they are at the negotiating table.”

Shapiro emphasized achieving a two-state solution is critical to the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“It’s clearly a U.S. interest to have Israel, which is a strong ally and security partner, continue to be that, but what enables it to be that is that it is strong and secure and also that it is a Jewish and democratic state,” Shapiro said. “It is hard to imagine any circumstance where it can continue to be all those things without a two-state solution.”

He continued by saying it is important that the United States and Israel are allies, with common threats such as the possibility of an Iranian nuclear program.

Shapiro also expressed satisfaction with the results of the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s compliance with the conditions despite Trump’s negative assessment of the agreement.

“In my judgment, the Iran deal continues to do what it needs to and what it was advertised as, which is it prevents Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon and keeps it more than a year from the ability to achieve that capability, and can sustain that for over a decade and monitor it,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro also spoke about the potential for new alliances between Israel and the Arab states against common threats, such as ISIS, if meaningful progress is made in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shapiro said that if Israel recognizes that a strong, stable Palestine would be a useful partner in the region, there might be a normalization of Israeli-Arab relations.

Finally, Shapiro addressed the role of social media in modern diplomacy. Shapiro views social media as an extremely useful tool for diplomats and governments as long as it is used properly.

“I tried, and I know other embassies and other ambassadors have tried, to make it a key means of communication with parts of populations that we previously, as diplomats, didn’t have as easy access to,” Shapiro said.

According to Shapiro, exercising sufficient discipline and thoughtfulness when making statements through Twitter is essential, something which he said is not always done by the Trump administration. 

“When governments and officials say things that are not fully thought out or fully consistent with policy, it creates confusion with friends, with adversaries, and it can even create very dangerous situations,” Shapiro said.

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