Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel, indicated Sunday that he would have preferred if Washington had not allowed the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution condemning settlements in late December.
He firmly rejected, however, the Israeli government’s claim that the Obama administration ambushed Jerusalem by initiating and promoting the resolution, and noted that, six months later, Israel has yet to offer any of its promised proof to bolster this accusation.
“At a personal level, I could’ve lived without it,” Shapiro said of the December 23 Resolution 2334, speaking at a Times of Israel Presents event in Jerusalem. “Among other things, it happened in the week of my daughter’s bat mitzvah. And I was rather focused on other things, including her beautiful parsha [weekly Torah portion], which I had taught her to layn [recite], and family, and so forth. So it was something I could have lived without.”
Shapiro — who is staying on in Israel with his family for the next year or so, and is now a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv — defended the resolution as “perfectly in line with longstanding US policies.” But he revealed on Sunday that he had recommended that Washington take a different course. “I suggested something else,” he told Times of Israel’s founding editor David Horovitz in an hour-and-half-long interview.
Rather than the US refraining from vetoing the draft proposed by Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal and Venezuela — a decision which enabled the resolution to pass — Shapiro said he proposed shaping a text modeled on a July 2016 report published by the Middle East Quartet. That report was seen as far more balanced, since it placed significant emphasis on Palestinian incitement and condemned the “illicit arms buildup” and terrorist activities by Hamas.
“But I also understood that the dynamics of the Security Council are not such that we just get to decide what the text is. There is a negotiation, and other players are involved,” Shapiro said. “Frankly, it wasn’t our preference to do anything in the Security Council.”
In the last year of the Obama administration, US officials discussed what steps, if any, to take on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Shapiro recalled. Some suggested passing a UN resolution, others wanted for a speech by the president or the secretary of state laying out principles to be adopted by future administrations, yet others wanted to do nothing at all. President Barack Obama had not made his mind up until the very last moment, his envoy recalled.
After Donald Trump won the presidential election in November and promised a radical change in America’s Middle East policies, something became “very clear” immediately, according to Shapiro: “President Obama has absolutely zero interest in a final dramatic move on the Palestinian issue.”
Rather, the outgoing president was focused on preserving his achievements, such as the nuclear deal with Iran, the détente with Cuba and his landmark healthcare reform.
But Obama was forced into making a move, said Shapiro, by Trump supporters who might get the wrong message about US policies, as well as by the public comments of some pro-settlement leaders in Israel.
“The last thing he wanted was a fight with Trump or with Israel, with the Jewish community or with Congress over this issue,” Shapiro said of Obama. “It’s not something he wanted to do, but something we had to deal with.”
Obama’s eventual decision not to veto the Security Council resolution came in the context of the “big party among advocates of settlements” in Israel who, after Trump’s victory, started “hooping and hollering” that the era of Palestinian statehood was over and calling for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.
In that climate, vetoing the resolution, which was more balanced than previous such texts, would have sent a message that the US no longer supports a two-state solution, Shapiro said.
“That was the context and the atmosphere in which, in the last week of December — the day of my daughter’s bat mitzvah — President Obama had to make that decision. And one of the factors in that decision was, if he vetoes it, does it somehow give his approval to this big party going on about annexation and legalization and widespread settlement construction and the death of the two-state solution? That was a factor. So it was a judgment call.”
Shapiro rejected the accusation, made by the Israeli government at the time, that the Obama White House initiated the Security Council vote and helped draft the text of the resolution. Jerusalem claimed to have evidence to support its claim, but none was ever presented to the public, the former ambassador noted.
What happened rather, he said, was that the Palestinians asked their friends on the Security Council to propose a resolution, leaving Washington only a very short time to decide which way to vote, he said.
“The decision to abstain [in the Friday vote], which was taken as we were going into Shabbat dinner here with my family before the bat mitzvah, was literally made in those last minutes. So I wasn’t able to tell any Israeli official this is going to happen, that we were going to abstain. I did not know because no decision had been made [until the last moment]. The president did not know [ahead of time]. This somehow punctures the notion that that was some big American plot.”
Given that the resolution merely reflected an international consensus on the illegitimacy of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, its passing “was pretty inconsequential,” Shapiro argued.
While stopping short of criticizing the Obama administration’s policy of condemning any Israeli building over the pre-1967 Green Line, regardless of whether it took place in an outlying hilltop or a Jerusalem neighborhood, Shapiro seemed to agree that the White House could have expressed greater understanding for building for natural growth in settlement blocs likely to come under permanent Israeli rule in any conceivable future peace deal.
“There are times when we might have been able to draw different distinctions,” he allowed. The administration did believe that settlement blocs would have a different fate than outlying settlements, though that “did not always come across,” he said. “It was easier to see these distinctions in our private interactions than in some of our public reactions.”
Addressing a large crowd at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque, Shapiro also spoke about the current US administration, expressing grave reservations over Donald Trump’s personal style but finding himself largely in agreement with the president’s Mideast policies to date.
“It’s not my cup of tea,” he said about the Trump presidency, and he didn’t vote for Trump, “obviously.”
“There are lot of of things that concern me about policies,” he elaborated. “There are a lot of things that concern me that go way beyond policies, that go to the health of our institutions, to the kind of discourse we conduct with each other, the values that we communicate to our children… and somewhat the international order that we’ve come to take for granted.”
A lot of damage has been done by some of the president’s decisions, he charged. “So I am very concerned about this as a patriotic American.”
However, the administration’s initiative to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace “is largely something I can support,” he said.
The president and his team — he cited Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman — pursue goals that “look a lot to me like traditional US policies,” he added: helping both sides to negotiate an end to their conflict, denouncing Palestinian incitement and glorification of violence, urging Israel to rein in settlement expansion, and trying to get Sunni Arab states to join this effort through gestures of normalization toward Israel.
“To me this is a very familiar and recognizable policy,” he said. “It suggests that these were not hobbyhorses of the previous administration.”