Report: Shapiro Is Obama’s Choice for Israel Envoy

Liaison: Shapiro (right) has served President Obama on the
National Security Council as senior director for the Middle East.
Courtesy of The White House
Liaison: Shapiro (right) has served President Obama on the National Security Council as senior director for the Middle East.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 23, 2011, issue of March 04, 2011.
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Dan Shapiro, whose direct phone number in the White House is on speed dial for most Jewish leaders, could soon be heading to Israel as the top U.S. diplomatic envoy in Tel Aviv.

According to a February 22 report in Politico, President Obama intends to appoint Shapiro, who serves as senior director for Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council, as ambassador to Israel.

As the Forward went to print, the report has yet to be confirmed by the White House or the State Department. An administration source said he could not confirm or deny the reported nomination — which meanwhile has been widely accepted around Washington as a fait accompli. Shapiro would replace Ambassador James B. Cunningham, whose term ends in June.

As Middle East director at the National Security Council, a post that he has been filling since Obama took office, Shapiro was closely involved in attempts to calm the rocky relations between the administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel. Shapiro also played an active role in the administration’s efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and traveled frequently to the region on his own and with special envoy George Mitchell or with Obama adviser Dennis Ross.

But for the Jewish community, Shapiro played another role. He was seen by many as the go-to person in the Obama White House as he made himself available to communal leaders who wanted to vent frustrations over the twists and turns of American-Israeli relations.

“Dan is a real mensch,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy at the Jewish Federations of North America. “He is someone who knows Israel very well, has deep roots in the American Jewish community, and has developed a very close working relationship with the principal players in the region.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, added: “Dan has been a thoughtful voice on policy and an open and receptive conduit between the Jewish community and the White House.” And veteran Democratic PR adviser Steve Rabinowitz summed it up by saying: “I just don’t know a person in Washington or the region who doesn’t like him.”

While many in the foreign policy community became acquainted with Shapiro during his service in the House Foreign Affairs committee under then-chairman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, most in the Jewish community got to know him in the 2008 presidential campaign. Shapiro served then as Obama’s liaison to the Jewish community, working to convince voters who initially tended to support Hillary Rodham Clinton that the young senator from Illinois understood their needs and supported Israel. Shapiro also joined candidate Obama in his trip to Israel before the elections.

The ambassador-apparent is also a well-known figure in the Washington Jewish community, where he attends synagogue and sends his daughters to Jewish day school.

Shapiro has taken time to meet with almost every Israeli official who visited Washington in the past two years and to attend most major Jewish conferences, although he rarely speaks on record. An Israeli diplomat said Shapiro was widely liked by Israelis who view him as a bridge to the Obama administration. “His door is always open and he has good knowledge of the issues,” said a diplomat who asked not to be named.

Knowing the issues also could mean diving into Israeli politics. Shapiro held meetings in Israel with both coalition and opposition members, and at times worked to convince Netanyahu’s coalition partners to support a settlement freeze and enter negotiations with the Palestinians. One Israeli politician, Shas leader Eli Yishai, even said he had spoken with Shapiro in Hebrew during their meeting.

Shapiro, if nominated and then confirmed by the Senate, would be the third Jewish American to be appointed as ambassador to Israel, joining Martin Indyk who served twice during the Clinton administration and Daniel Kurtzer who was appointed by President George W. Bush.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttuman@forward.com


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