Meet Dan Shapiro, the Hebrew-tweeting U.S. ambassador


WASHINGTON (JTA) – The U.S. ambassador to Israel tweets in Hebrew.

A generation ago, the latter part of that statement would have been as shocking as the first part would have been incomprehensible.

The notion of an ambassador to Israel having a pre-existing affinity with the country, never mind fluency in its native tongue, was unimaginable. The U.S. State Department had a policy of not sending Jewish diplomats to the top post in Israel. The late Ezer Weizman, when he was Israel’s defense minister in the late 1970s and early 1980s, teased Samuel Lewis, then the U.S. ambassador, by addressing him as “Shmuel Levy,” partly because the men had become friends — but also because the notion of a Jewish ambassador to Israel seemed preposterous.

That changed in 1995 when President Bill Clinton named Martin Indyk to the post, to much Israeli fanfare. Indyk served two stints, and Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew, also served in the post in the mid-2000s.

It’s a measure of how much the Jewish factor is no longer an issue that when Dan Shapiro assumed the post earlier this year, his religion surprised no one, although it was acknowledged: In the 2008 election, he was a leading Jewish proxy for the Obama team, and as the National Security Council officer in charge of the Levant, he was the go-to person for the pro-Israel community.

Shapiro is not shy about his Jewish connections. He even has cajoled top administration officials into fundraising appearances for his kids’ school, the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital. And Shapiro noted his Jewish roots — and his affinity for Israel — in his confirmation hearings.

“I’ve been involved with Israel most of my life,” he told U.S. senators in the May 4 hearings. “I lived in Israel as a young child during the 1973 war. I took two tours of university studies there. And I worked here in the Congress for many years to support Middle East peace efforts, strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and combat terrorism — the terrorist threats against both our nations.”

It was a measure of his popularity that Obama’s naming of Shapiro earned plaudits from across the pro-Israel spectrum, from Americans for Peace Now to the Zionist Organization of America.

In the months since, Shapiro has become a familiar presence in Israel both through his Hebrew status updates on Twitter and Facebook, and as a reliable talking head for a country that seems to take its broadcast news intravenously.

Shapiro, 42, appeared last week at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Denver in a conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Michael Oren, who also happens to be U.S. born.

Before appearing with Oren, Shapiro spoke to JTA and explained why he makes a point of addressing Israelis in Hebrew.

“Nowadays the public diplomacy part of an ambassador’s role is almost as or as important as the conventional diplomatic function, and there’s no better way to reach people than in their own language. Even those who speak English appreciate it,” he said. “Many Israelis have told me they appreciate the effort to master — to use Hebrew to convey American ideas and policies in their language and to give them a chance to express themselves to me in Hebrew.”

But it comes with hazards, he said: “I’m starting to be recognized. Nobody hesitates to share their opinion, which is part of the job.”

Here are some other topics Shapiro addressed in his conversation with JTA:

The state of the U.S.-Israel defense relationship:

“It’s as strong as it’s ever been, and that is something that the military leaderships on both sides have said publicly but also told us internally that they are overwhelmed by the depth and the quality of the interchange and coordination. It takes the form, obviously, of military assistance. It takes the form of the joint technological work on missile defense, especially Arrow and Iron Dome and David’s Sling. [The Arrow is a long-range missile defense system, and the other two are short-range missile defense systems.] It takes the form of Israeli technologies that we are deploying in the U.S. military, like armor for our Bradley fighting vehicles. It takes the form of joint exercises, and we now have announced the largest-ever joint exercises to be scheduled for early 2012, breaking the record of the previous largest ever, from the fall of 2010, Juniper Cobra. It reflects a real convergence of strategic interests and recognition that we both benefit from coordinating efforts to deal with the significant strategic challenges we both face in the Middle East.”

The U.S. strategic interest in maintaining the relationship with Israel:

“We simply have no better partner than Israel, no partner with whom we have such overwhelming common interests as well as common values. So when we’re looking at the challenges of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and building an international coalition that would put the squeeze on Iran so that it does not happen; when we look at dealing with uncertainty and change in the Arab world; when we look at the threat posed by terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and others and more radical groups, you’re drawn toward the partners you can count on.”

What’s ahead for Iran: Is there a prospect of a military option?

“The president said many times that nothing’s off the table when it comes to how to address the threat posed by Iran and … it’s a determination we absolutely share with Israel to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That’s why we have together with Israel and a lot of other partners built the strongest-ever sanctions regime against Iran that’s had real bite … and why we’re going to be looking to increase that pressure in days to come.”

The Arab Spring:

“The transition in Egypt, like the other transitions in the Arab world, are not going to play out over months; they are going to play out over years. And what we are going to try to do in a situation where we don’t control outcomes … is minimize the risk that these transitions pose — and there is real risk — and prepare for it, and maximize the opportunity, because there is also real opportunity. We will be making clear to Egyptians of all backgrounds that we want to see a more open, transparent Egyptian government that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people.

“We will expect them to be responsible international players and uphold their commitments, including the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and will be very closely coordinating with Israel as these new transitions unfold to try to make sure we are charting a common course through what are clearly uncharted waters.”

Was it a mistake for the Obama administration to emphasize a settlement freeze at the outset?

“We clearly have not made as much progress as we would have liked in advancing negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and undoubtedly everybody would do some things differently because of that.

“It’s important to emphasize that negotiations without preconditions was the appropriate basis upon which to bring the parties together. Our position on settlements and construction in East Jerusalem hasn’t changed. We believe those kind of announcements are counterproductive to our goals of trying to get negotiations under way and trying to move toward a two-state solution that resolves the conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples. Our focus is on returning the parties to negotiations.

Will the Obama administration press Congress to continue funding the Palestinian Authority, despite congressional opposition in the face of the PA’s efforts to gain statehood recognition in the absence of talks?

“We do think that the institution-building that we have supported in the Palestinian Authority and that Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad has led has been very beneficial to our interests [and] to Israel in providing a better security environment, a partner with whom to negotiate. … Of course, it’s been beneficial to Palestinians in laying the foundation for a future state. So we’d like that project to continue. We think our support is an important component of that.”

UNESCO last month admitted Palestine as a member, necessitating a cutoff in U.S. funding per U.S. law. The Obama administration is seeking ways around this. What happens now?

“The law is clear and we’ll implement the law. I think we will consult with the Congress on how to continue to advance our interests and support programs in the United Nations system that we believe do advance our interests; I think many members of Congress think they do as well. Obviously we will certainly uphold the law.”

Was it a mistake for President Obama not to speak in Israel in 2009 when he traveled to Egypt to address the Muslim world?

“The president, I know, has enjoyed his previous visits as a senator to Israel, and does look forward to an opportunity to visit Israel. I don’t have any news I can make on that or any knowledge of any planning, but I know it’s something he looks forward to.”

What is your relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his staff?

“Excellent. I’ve worked very closely with the prime minister and his senior advisers since 2009; they’re great professional advisers, they’re close personal friends. We speak daily, often multiple times daily, and it’s collaborative, it’s friendly, it’s a very productive working relationship. Even when there’s something that we don’t fully agree on, we talk it through and we work it out.”

Describe your Israeli Shabbat:

“We go to shul on Shabbat morning. We try to spend good family time the rest of the Shabbat and visit with friends, including Israeli friends. We’ve taken hikes, we ride bikes, we go to the beach, we go to the museums, we’re a family with young children enjoying Israel the way a family with young children should.”

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