The U.S. Ambassador Trades Barbs With Israeli Comedians

Dan Shapiro makes an unusual appearance on satire TV show, in fluent Hebrew.

Apparently there is a fierce and passionate argument between the U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that simply can’t be resolved:

What is the best university in Cambridge, Massachusetts?

“Your prime minister went to MIT. That’s a huge point of contention between us - Harvard vs. MIT,” revealed Harvard grad Shapiro in an appearance on Israeli television Saturday night.

Shapiro brought up the school rivalry on the Israeli satire show “State of the Union” as the panel poked fun at the U.S.-Israel relationship - the tongue-in-cheek premise of the appearance was that the panel was on a campaign to recruit Shapiro in a campaign to turn Israel into the 51st U.S. state. Since everyone accuses Israel of being an extension of U.S. power anyway, he said, why not reap the benefits?

The program, called in Hebrew Matzav Ha’Uma, is modeled after classic British satirical panel shows like the BBC’s ‘Have I Got News For You” (think Jon Stewart with a bunch of sidekicks sitting next to him). The Saturday night broadcast marked the show’s season finale and, in Shapiro’s honor, the TV studio was festooned with Israeli and American flags, as he made his entrance to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.”

As the quips began flying fast and furious, the U.S. diplomat had to walk a fine line between joining in the fun and - well - being diplomatic.

And he did so in his signature fluent Hebrew. Past American ambassadors such as Martin Indyk and Daniel Kurtzer have had a working knowledge of Hebrew, but neither felt comfortable enough in the language to banter on Israeli radio and television the way Shapiro does.

In one of a long series of jokes poking fun at the perceived thorny relationship between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, host Lior Schlein pointed out to Shapiro that: “You speak English, Hebrew, and Arabic, which must make it easy for you to pass the message from Bibi to Obama: Dude, give me some space?”

Shapiro laughed and responded: “That only requires one language.”

Schlein then noted that Shapiro hadn’t denied the message.

At another point in the show, panelist, Einav Galili asked Shapiro deadpan: “So it’s clear if there’s going to be peace, all of the sides have to talk, to communicate. So tell us - how exactly do you plan to convince Obama to answer the phone when Bibi calls?”

Another query by Galili: “You are always saying that the relationship between Israel and the U.S. has never been warmer. Are you sure they you aren’t just referring to the fact that they are burning our flags side-by-side in the Cairo demonstrations?”

Shapiro wisely stayed quiet after these cracks were made, but later looked the panel in the eye and asked them, “Do you guys think there’s some kind of problem between Bibi and Obama? I never noticed anything.”

Comedian Alfi Guri chuckled at Shapiro’s presumed naivete. “You sound like a kid with two divorced parents. “

Fellow panelist Einav Galili added: “Yes, yes, like one of those modern-era families with three fathers and two mothers.”

Shapiro interjected diplomatically. “And I love them all.”

After repeated barbs regarding Obama-Netanyahu ties, Shapiro clearly felt the relationship between the two leaders needed some non-comic defense: “They very much respect each other and they know how to work together. All of the cooperation and coordination between our governments start at the top.”

But it wasn’t only the two country’s leaders that were in for some ribbing. The peace process - and Shapiro himself - were fair game too.

Schlein said to Shapiro that: “Obama sent you to Israel, among other thing, to promote his program for peace in the Middle East, but the truth is he could have just as easily sent Jerry Seinfeld, right? Seinfeld is Jewish like you, he’s American like you, and he also has a program about nothing.”

Panelist Orna Banai asked: “You live in Israel and have what all of us dream of: American citizenship. When do you think that Obama will forgive you for whatever it is you did to him and let you go home?”

In a nod to the fact that it is highly unconventional for a diplomat to make an appearance on a hard-hitting satire program, Shapiro said that he saw his role in Israel as not only facilitating communication with government and leaders, but by listening to and speaking with the Israeli public. Judging by the reaction of the panelists, his charm offensive on the eve of the new set of U.S.-sponsored peace talks was quite effective.

When Shapiro said the U.S. and Israel have “no choice” but to face the challenges of the Middle East as partners, Schlein brought up his “51st state” lobbying campaign, interjecting: “No, no, that’s the thing - we do have a choice. Take us as the 51st state. Just think of the advantages. If we become the 51st state, Jonathan Pollard can stay in American prison and he can return to Israel at the same time.”

Shapiro paused and replied: “That’s a very … creative offer...I’ll pass it on.”

Schlein: “Really?!”

Shapiro: “No.”

Taking another tack, Schlein changed his offer. “OK, let’s say you don’t want us us as the 51st state. Why don’t you just let us trade places with New York? We also have millions of Jews and a history of terror attacks, and we also think it would be great to have a statue that’s lifting a torch 100 meters over the sea? (the word for ‘torch’ in Hebrew is “Lapid” - the joke was a jab at embattled Finance Minister Yair Lapid.)

Shapiro retorted: “I think there are so many Israelis living in New York right now that New York could easily become part of Israel, not the other way around.”

The panel also poked fun at the diplomat for the famously expansive U.S. ambassador’s residence by the sea. Guri said, “You live in one of the five most expensive houses in Israel. So when you say there’s enough room in Israel for two states, you mean there’s enough room in your house, right?”

Shapiro replied: “Yes, but they’re going to have to be very small states.”