New American Ambassador to Try to Improve Israelis' View of U.S.

New U.S. ambassador to Israel must battle bad PR, rivalry with American consulate.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Dan Shapiro, the new American ambassador to Israel, has two culinary loves. The first is Spam, the preserved lunch meat that comes in a can; its Israeli equivalent is Luf, a dish that should be familiar to anyone who has served in a combat unit here.

One urban legend that has made the rounds in the White House tells of a dinner at the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. According to legend, Shapiro, who then headed the Middle East division at the U.S. National Security Council, turned to Netanyahu and inquired about his reported fondness for the Spam-type lunch meat served in the IDF. Legend has it that Netanyahu jumped out of his chair in excitement, raced from the room and returned proudly with a can of the IDF-issued Luf in his hand. "It's my favorite food," Netanyahu supposedly pronounced.

The antiquated U.S. Embassy building on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, where crowded conditions interfere with routine business.Credit: Ariel Schalit

Shapiro's second culinary love is Diet Mountain Dew, the fizzy lemon soda produced by Pepsi. At Shapiro's swearing-in ceremony at the State Department in Washington a few weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joked that a supply of the new ambassador's favorite soft drink would be sent to Tel Aviv each month by diplomatic pouch.

Shapiro, 42, landed in Tel Aviv last Thursday; next Thursday, he will submit his credentials to President Shimon Peres. Finding Diet Mountain Dew in Israel, no doubt, will be one of the easiest challenges he will face.

Presidential ties

Shapiro's most powerful asset is his close relationship with President Barack Obama; he has stood by Obama's side for nearly four years now. In fact, Shapiro, a Conservative Jew, was the one who spearheaded Senator Obama's presidential campaign in the American Jewish community.

The prime minister's bureau will have a hard time selling Shapiro on Israel's usual smoke-and-mirror show. He simply knows us too well. When he was 4 years old, he experienced the Yom Kippur War in Israel with his parents. He has studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he has made numerous visits here. Since early 2009, Shapiro has advised President Obama on all manner of issues pertaining to the Middle East.

His door was always open to any Israeli official and politician visiting Washington. At every meeting held by the president or the secretary of state with senior Israeli officials, Shapiro was in the room. At every one of peace envoy George Mitchell's diplomatic shuttles, Shapiro was on the plane. He will enjoy an open line to Obama and Clinton, and it will be difficult for Netanyahu and his advisers to go over his head and speak directly with Washington.

In the course of his transition to the new post, Shapiro was given three reports drafted by the U.S. Department of State's internal comptroller, known as the Office of the Inspector General. The first related to the function of the embassy in Tel Aviv; the second was about the function of the consulate general in Jerusalem - which does not answer to the embassy, and is in fact responsible for contact with the Palestinian Authority. The third report focused on the working relationship between the two diplomatic representatives.

An unclassified version of all three reports was recently released for public scrutiny and has come into the possession of Haaretz.

According to Foreign Ministry data, nearly 800 people are employed at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, including 200 American emissaries representing eight American federal government agencies. The embassy's annual budget is approximately $44 million.

A review team of the Department of State's Inspector General came to Tel Aviv in October 2010 and spent two weeks talking with American diplomats there. "Embassy Tel Aviv's leadership faces challenges matched in intensity in only three or four other world capitals," states the report, which was distributed in March.

"A fragile Israeli coalition government leans toward the views of its members from the nationalistic and religious right, creating a challenge for diplomats seeking to build support for U.S. policies," the report continues." Nearly $7 million of the Tel Aviv embassy's budget is earmarked for public relations directed at the Israeli public. "Much of the Israeli public is suspicious of U.S. efforts to promote negotiations aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state," the report states. "The lively and fractious press often misinterprets American policies." While the report's authors express themselves in a polite American diffidence, between the lines it is evident that throughout the Obama presidency the embassy's public relations efforts in Israel have been an abject failure. "The OIG team recommended informally that the embassy increase its communications about U.S. policies and values and to rebuild contacts with opinion leaders and influential think tanks," the report concludes.

The face of the U.S.

Unlike his predecessor, James Cunningham, who avoided the media like the plague, it is expected that Shapiro will spend a great deal of time engaged in dialogue with the Israeli public, and that he will try to become the face of the United States here in Israel. The fact that he is young, speaks Hebrew and Arabic, and is familiar with the Israeli mentality can only help him in this mission.

In 2002, when Netanyahu was the finance minister in Ariel Sharon's cabinet, Israel was under attack by suicide terrorists and in the throes of economic recession. The United States agreed to provide Israel with loan guarantees of up to $9 billion, provided to international banks. One of the main conditions was that Israel would not be able to use these funds for the purpose of settlement construction. The OIG report states that the embassy has invested too much time inspecting the use of the guarantees. "Planning should begin now for its orderly termination," the report states. "Since the last OIG inspection, Israel has been admitted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an indication that it is now a modern, self-sufficient economy capable of supporting its citizens as an industrialized country. The OIG team found a broad consensus that the loan guarantee program can prudently be terminated in accordance with the sunset clause in the original legislation, which provided that it would end by 2011."

Cunningham, the previous ambassador - now the U.S. deputy ambassador to Afghanistan - earned praise in the report for the "productive relationships" he has forged with senior Israeli and Washington officials. Nevertheless, the report states, "Communication within the mission is limited. The Ambassador is respected for his intellectual ability but rarely interacts with employees below the most senior ranks. The Ambassador does not visit the [political] section and does not routinely share with it the results of his meetings. ... The Deputy Chief of Mission's outgoing personality complements the Ambassador's more reserved leadership style."

"The embassy struggles to meet a heavy demand for analytical reporting in an environment where many interlocutors deal only with a few key Washington officials," the report continues. "The problem is exacerbated by poor management of the political section. Political work is hindered by a lack of clearly prioritized instructions to facilitate the efforts of all officers." "The [OIG] team also encouraged the mission to add its greatest comparative value by expanding contacts with mid-level politicians and reporting on domestic factors that affect the policies and stability of Israel's coalition government," states the report, which also highlights the unbearable burden created by the thousands of visits by high-ranking American officials each year: "The volume of official visitors to Embassy Tel Aviv is so great that it is interfering with essential business," it states.

A diplomat divided

The report states that the embassy building on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv is antiquated and dilapidated, and that the crowded conditions are intolerable. A law passed in Congress in 1995 ruled that until the embassy was moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, the Department of State was forbidden to build any new building for American diplomats. Since then, all U.S. presidents have postponed the transfer of the embassy, due to political and security considerations. It has been years since any significant expansion or renovation of the building has been undertaken.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Consulate General is located on Agron Street in West Jerusalem and is responsible for links with the Palestinian Authority. Like Shapiro, the consul general in Jerusalem, Daniel Rubinstein, is Jewish, speaks Arabic and Hebrew, and has abundant experience in the Middle East. The consulate is not subordinate to the embassy in Tel Aviv and reports directly to Washington. This is relatively rare in the American diplomatic administration, similar only in Hong Kong, where the consulate is independent despite being part of the American diplomatic mission in China.

Since the start of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, a professional rivalry has developed between the embassy in Tel Aviv and the consulate in Jerusalem. In many instances, instead of working together in order to advance American policy, the ambassador and the consul general have engaged in internal battles in Washington. After holding conversations with the diplomats at the Jerusalem consulate, the OIG inspection team wrote, "A bitter history of antagonism as well as recent provocations underlie mistrust between the two communities, accentuated in the Palestinian case by humiliation derived from their relatively powerless position."

Rival reporting

The inspection report reveals that coordination between the two representatives has improved due to good personal relationships between the two current heads. But, it adds, "Instead of waiting for such problems to resurface, the missions could move now to institutionalize this atmosphere and create an ongoing culture of cooperation. Doing so could help prevent backsliding in the future, when leaders' personalities may not be as collegial as they are now." "Some reporting on Israeli-Palestinian issues could be strengthened by closer coordination between the consulate general and the embassy," the report states. "The embassy bases its reporting on Israeli sources, and the consulate on Palestinian sources. On occasion, this has led to the contradictory perspectives of two foreign adversaries rather than an integrated view of both missions. The embassy and consulate have begun to hold joint meetings on some subjects, but their efforts to combine reporting have been hindered by too narrow a view of which post will receive the primary credit and which one will be listed as 'contributing.'"

"The consulate produces strong reporting on the West Bank, where it has extensive contacts with the senior levels of the Palestinian Authority," the report continues. "The mission is aware that it is less successful in reporting the views of ordinary Palestinians outside Ramallah. For security reasons, those areas are more difficult and expensive to reach; for now, the mission focuses its scarce resources on areas such as Ramallah that are more likely to produce immediate reporting and respond to heavy demands by Washington consumers." Any and all travel to meetings held in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority requires secured convoys of armored vehicles. Since the October 2003 terrorist attack on American diplomats in Gaza, the State Department has banned its representatives from entering Gaza. "Reporting on Gaza is constrained, however, by the inability of U.S. diplomats to travel there because of security considerations and because Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, took power there in 2007," the report states. "Unable to travel there themselves, consulate officers rely on information from other diplomatic missions, nongovernment organizations, the media, and UNRWA. They also meet with Gazan contacts outside Gaza."

Shapiro has gotten used to functioning with little sleep. In the past three years he has, on many occasions, found himself sending emails at 2 A.M. to administration colleagues. "Like the President, I have come to rely on Dan's good judgment and his tireless work ethic," Clinton said at Shapiro's swearing-in ceremony in Washington on July 8.

"No hour is too late for one more meeting or one last discussion," she said. "I see some chuckles of recognition in the crowd. In fact, just give in early. If Dan is calling, just take the call."



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