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Former U.S. Ambassador To Israel Weighs In On Embassy Move To Jerusalem


For another perspective on the U.S. embassy move, we're joined now by Ambassador Daniel Shapiro - no relation. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Obama from 2011 until last year. And he joins us now from Jerusalem. Ambassador Shapiro, welcome.


A. SHAPIRO: Before I ask you specifically about the embassy, I'd like your take on the violence that we just heard about along the Gaza border. Elsewhere on the program, we hear from the Palestinian ambassador to the U.S. who calls it a massacre. How do you view it?

D. SHAPIRO: Well, of course, it's very tragic. It's instigated by Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules Gaza. It's a very violent event that's taking place with a combination of civilians and people with violent intent and conducting violent acts. It's a very big challenge for the Israeli military - just as the U.S. military has sometimes had to fight terrorist organizations that embed themselves within civilian populations.

A. SHAPIRO: Do you think the Israeli military had any way of addressing this challenge that might not have resulted in such a very high death toll?

D. SHAPIRO: It's very hard to know and judge from a distance. Obviously, each individual case should be investigated. And generally, the Israeli military has taken that responsibility seriously. When we reviewed Israeli practices during the 2014 Gaza campaign, the U.S. military actually came away feeling that Israel had really made every effort to try to avoid civilian casualties. But one can never be satisfied when civilians are killed. Even if they were put in harm's way by their own leadership, a terrorist organization, that still imposes a burden on the democratic nations of the world to try to do everything and then redouble efforts to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.

A. SHAPIRO: Let's pivot to discussion of the actual embassy move. When you saw the official opening today, what went through your mind?

D. SHAPIRO: My feeling is that the U.S. embassy does belong in Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been Israel's capital since its founding. And we have treated it functionally as such. When I was the ambassador in Tel Aviv, I would routinely get in my car and drive to Jerusalem and conduct the affairs of state with the Israeli government in their official offices. So putting our embassy in West Jerusalem, which has always been Israel's capital and which is not really in dispute - it would never change hands in any plausible two-state solution map - is really quite defensible.

But what the administration failed to do, when they made that announcement and then in today's ceremony, was to put that decision in the broader context of a two-state solution in which Palestinians can also see what they can expect to get out of it. It may be many years away before there are negotiations or leaders who are capable of conducting those negotiations. But at the end of those negotiations, Palestinians are going to need to have their own state, and that state's capitol will be in East Jerusalem. And so it would be much better for the administration to speak openly about the broader context of that decision than just focus on the one piece even though I'm sympathetic and think it was a correct decision on its own merits.

A. SHAPIRO: So in your view, what's the likely consequence of opening the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem without, as you suggested, pairing it with a larger push for peace?

D. SHAPIRO: What I think it has done for now - it has led to a real breach between the United States and the Palestinians. There's no contact underway at the moment, no ability to meet even with Palestinian officials. And the administration has been working on a peace plan. Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president's special envoy, have been working for over a year to develop and write a plan for peace. But at this point, if they were to present any such plan, it would be dead on arrival because there's no way any Palestinian leader could sign up to it until they can see that their own people's needs are also being met.

So I think they have a lot of work to do to rebuild that breach. I believe it's probably going to keep the U.S. on the sidelines of any significant attempt to negotiate for a significant period of time. But what the administration needs to do then is put down some anchors that keep the two-state solution alive and viable and achievable for the future when different leaders are in place.

A. SHAPIRO: I'd like to play you something that the Palestinian ambassador to the U.S., Husam Zomlot, told us today.


HUSAM ZOMLOT: The U.S. has actually removed itself from the role of the peacemaker and placed itself squarely with the side of one extreme element of this whole equation.

A. SHAPIRO: So if that's the Palestinian view, how do you think the U.S. can go forward?

D. SHAPIRO: I think the United States should be encouraging all sides to do those things which they can do outside of negotiations but which keep a two-state solution alive and viable for the future. For Israel, that clearly means a limitation on settlement construction in the West Bank.

For Palestinians, it would include changing their education system and the kind of rhetoric they use about violence and about the legitimacy of Israel. For Arab states, it would include accelerating a process of normalization that's under way with Israel. And for the international community, it would obviously mean continuing - even increasing the assistance that we've provided for many years to improve Palestinians' lives in humanitarian circumstances and help them build the economy and the institutions of the state that will have to be established if this conflict will ever be resolved.

Those are all things that can take place outside of negotiations that don't require trust that is nonexistent between the leaderships on both sides. And the administration should define the goal as two states and then get to work on these practical steps on the ground that can take place outside of negotiations.

A. SHAPIRO: You've described what you believe the U.S. should do. When you look at what the U.S. actually is doing and has done, do you believe the U.S. remains committed to pushing for a two-state solution?

D. SHAPIRO: I think President Trump has shown some surprising interest in trying to achieve what he calls the ultimate deal. And he doesn't define it as a two-state solution. He should. He should be that clear. But when he describes what he has in mind - a peace settlement reached in negotiations between the two sides in which Palestinians achieve self-determination, and Israelis achieve peace and security, and Israel's relations open up with the Arab world - I'm very confident that can only be achieved in a two-state solution. Now, again, he may not be willing to take those steps at this point. And in that case, some of these steps may have to wait for a change of American leadership - not only changes in Israeli and Palestinian leadership - before we'll be able to see significant progress toward it.

A. SHAPIRO: You sort of discussed the practicalities of the move. Symbolically, emotionally, was this a significant day for you?

D. SHAPIRO: It was very moving to see how much Israelis appreciated the long sought recognition of their capital, which it's really never received internationally. For many years, the United States has delayed that move - and I think for good reasons. The law that requires its move also gives the president the ability to delay it six months at a time, which Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama and even Trump did in order to give peace negotiations space to move forward. When there are no negotiations, that logic was no longer available. And it was moving to see Israelis take that in such a meaningful way. Some of the praise of President Trump I think is a bit exaggerated. But nevertheless, I don't blame them for being appreciative and for expressing it in a very emotional way.

A. SHAPIRO: That's former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, joining us from Jerusalem on this day that the U.S. embassy officially moves there. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us.

D. SHAPIRO: Thanks - good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "CIRCLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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