Watching the energy with which U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro and his family pack up six years' worth of diplomatic service and memories into stacks of boxes the week before they depart the official residence, you can quickly tell they are eagerly looking forward to their next chapter.
- U.S. Envoy’s Farewell: Relations With Israel 'Stronger, Closer' Under Obama
- Outgoing U.S. Envoy Dan Shapiro to Stay in Israel After Trump Takes Office
- Netanyahu Summons U.S. Ambassador Over UN Vote on Settlements
The same, however, can’t be said of their staff they say is unsettled by the possibility that the young family may not be replaced any time soon.
The expansive mansion perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean in Herzliya may very well remain unoccupied indefinitely. There is the very real possibility that Shapiro’s successor, David Friedman will live in Jerusalem, in anticipation of President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial promise to move the U.S. embassy to the Israeli capital.
Shapiro’s wife, Julie Fisher, says she feels badly about her stressed-out staff, whose future is uncertain. She also reports that even a month after Friedman was named, the Shapiros have yet to receive any word from him or his spouse.
“We haven’t heard from them. Dan has put out to the State Department that he stands ready to brief him and help in any way big questions remain about what will happen. And so, as you can imagine, our residence staff is very worried, and we aren’t in a position to reassure them. It’s hard.”
At least Fisher knows she’ll be nearby to offer support. In an unprecedented decision for a U.S. ambassador, Fisher and Shapiro, instead of heading back to the United States, plan to remain in Israel not as diplomats, but as expatriates.
They have rented a house in the neighboring city of Ra’anana where their eldest daughter Liat, 16, attends an Israeli high school. Their other two daughters, Merav, 12, and Shira, 9, attend classes at the private American School, a half-hour drive away.
The Sunday sit-down with Haaretz has been sandwiched between packing and Shapiro’s remaining meetings as he counts down to his farewell to the embassy on Friday at noon, when Trump is sworn in, and he, like all other Obama political appointees, must clear out.
Shapiro, clad in very unambassadorial weekend dad-wear, far different from his usual buttoned-down presentation, doesn’t seem at all unhappy about the fact that he won’t have to report to Trump for even a moment.
The election of Trump may have come as a shock, he says, but it didn’t completely upend their family’s plans. Had Hillary Clinton won the election there is a good chance they would have remained in the ambassador’s residence until the end of the school year, but he doubts he would have served much longer.
“Probably after over eight years in government, what would have been healthy for me personally and my family would be to take time away from it,” he said. “ We were already kind of preparing ourselves mentally.”
Precisely how long the Shapiros will stay in Israel will depend on school schedules and job prospects.
For now, “We are taking it step by step, “ says Shapiro. His immediate plans are to write, speak, spend time with his family and catch up on all the sleep he’s missed over the turbulent eight years he’s been serving Barack Obama and his administration.
His immediate plans are to write, and strongly hinted at his farewell gala on Tuesday that he was planning to write a memoir, in addition to spending time with his family and catching up on all the sleep he’s missed over the turbulent eight years he’s been serving Barack Obama and his administration.
He was advised by predecessors that it was best to begin job-hunting in the private sector only when he’s no longer ambassador since “there are limitations on what you can do and who you can talk to when you are in government - but also, you are so busy and generally so focused on what you are doing.”
By remaining in Israel, he knows he will still be a public figure even though he will no longer be officially representing his country. He is also likely to give speeches and appear in both mainstream and social media. Shapiro has already set up a post-ambassadorial Twitter account and has started collecting followers.
While being “respectful of the space of the next ambassador,” Shapiro said, “I definitely want to continue to have a voice on the issues that I’ve been working on and care about, and it will be my own voice for the first time in a long time.”
It will be interesting to hear what that voice has to say. For the moment, when asked about the transition, Trump administration policies, and Israel's fury at the United States following their abstention in the UN Security Council vote on an anti-settlement resolution last month, and Secretary of State John Kerry's subsequent speech laying out US policy, Shapiro is still very much the diplomat, carefully echoing Obama’s and Kerry’s messages.
By contrast, Fisher makes little effort to hide her disappointment that after their family has invested so much time and energy in boosting relations between the countries that their stint has ended on a such a low note, with Israeli leaders and the public embittered and angry.
She is particularly unhappy at the Netanyahu government’s charge that the UN resolution was secretly devised by the White House behind Israel’s back.
Fisher calls it a “very painful” narrative that the Obama administration denies.
“I was extremely upset by all it,” Fisher admits. “I thought that, at the end of our time here, how sad to be ending on such a note when so much good has happened. We had just come off of the high of the F-35 aircraft being delivered. We had thought that was going to be the end note. That was such a big achievement as was the ($38 billion in military aid) MOU.”
When asked if he isn’t upset by the state of U.S.-Israeli relations as he leaves - not to mention the Middle East policy direction of the incoming Trump administration, Shapiro responds with Obama-esque understatement.
“We recognize what we are facing is a different kind of - not just a different political party in power but a different style of presidential leadership and candidly - one that has raised a lot of people’s concern.
"What I have been focused on professionally is to ensure the smoothest possible transition. That’s true between President Obama and the president-elect, the White House and the incoming staff, Secretary Kerry and Secretary-designate Tillerson, and - to the extent that my advice will be sought - between me and the next ambassador.
"We feel as an administration very strongly that - whoever you voted for - their success is our success as a country and so we want to give them every bit of knowledge and information that we have that could be useful.”
Just as he won’t say a negative word about Trump - he is equally determined to stay positive when it comes to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the state of US-Israeli relations.
“I am as convinced as I have ever been that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel is stronger in every respect than it was eight years ago - in security, in technology, in intelligence, in economy.
"I believe President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are responsible for that strengthening as much as they are associated with their disagreements - which are real.”
Shapiro’s stint as ambassador has been successful precisely because of his refusal to “go low” - either privately or publicly. And so, even Israelis who have differed sharply with Obama’s policies, like and respect Shapiro personally.
Shapiro isn't the first Jewish ambassador Washington has posted in Israel. But he was the first to appear regularly on Israeli media - including a late night comedy appearance - speaking fluent Hebrew.
He was also the first to bring small children to the seaside Herzliya Pituach residence. When Shapiro and Fisher landed in Israel in 2011, their three girls were 11, 6 and 4.
“Our kids were the youngest to ever live here, and every sofa was white and every table was glass,” Fisher rolls her eyes. Making such surroundings feel homey and comfortable proved a challenge. While she and Shapiro couldn’t change the decor, they did change the protocols of the house to give it a less formal feel.
Over the years, while they appreciated the luxuries of a spacious home on the sea with a massive garden, swimming pool, a view and a staff to take care of mundane tasks, they also felt like they “lived above the shop,” in hosting numerous events.
“Everyone has had to rise to the occasion of being in the public eye all the time and get used to having a lot less privacy,” Fisher says.
It also took time to get used to the rapid pace of events in the Middle East and how to respond to them properly. Fisher remembers a deadly August 2011 attack across the Egyptian border that occurred the same evening they were to host their first formal dinner.
She was sure at the time they were going to have to cancel the event until her staff explained, “No, no, no you don’t cancel. Israelis don’t cancel things.”
The family's most frightening moments were not linked to terrorism or the missile strikes of a 2014 Gaza war, but rather the explicit death threats they received over the U.S. role in talks for a nuclear deal with Iran, before the agreement was signed in 2015. In response, the ambassador's security detail was expanded to cover his entire family.
“I always said from the beginning that I wasn’t worried about Dan being attacked by a (Palestinian) terrorist, I was much more worried about (Jewish) right wing activists,” Fisher said.
The busiest period was the nine month intensive - and ultimately unsuccessful - push by Kerry to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, when he came to Israel a record-breaking 14 times in a single year, Shapiro and the embassy staff worked around the clock, and sometimes secret negotiations were moved to the residence on short notice.
On one occasion when each of the girls had friends over for playdates they were told that negotiators would be at the house in an hour.
“So there were eight kids playing here - and it turned into a surreal experience as I tried to keep the kids away from the meetings in the house and parents coming to pick up their kids from seeing who was there.”
Shapiro and Fisher estimate that they hosted some 20,000 guests at their home in their six years of service in Tel Aviv. The famously massive July 4th party alone accounted for half that number.
Their favorite visitor was President Obama, in 2013. Shapiro says it was gratifying to watch Israelis meet Obama in person and realize that “he demonstrates friendship and concern and fidelity to Israel’s security and well-being and future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Fisher, who studied sociology, is convinced that Israelis haven’t really understood Obama because his quiet style reads as cold and unfeeling in the Middle East.
“At the very end of his 2013 visit, the girls and I went to say goodbye and he picked up the girls and hugged them and it was on national TV. For weeks and months afterwards people asked me about that hug and how Obama looked so warm and nice. They were utterly surprised. It became clear that they thought he was a cold fish because he has a Zen-like calm and is gentle and respectful.”
As for the Netanyahus, despite all of the tension with the White House, Fisher says “they have been nothing but absolutely gracious to us and I’ve had nothing but delightful interactions with them.”
Merav, Shapiro's middle daughter, a budding diplomat herself, it seems, chimes in with her own two cents about Netanyahu.
“Sometimes people say he’s heartless and has no heart. But everybody has a heart. He’s a person like everybody else,” she says.
For all his time with powerful political leaders and military officials, Shapiro said he was moved the most by his contacts with ordinary Israelis. He said he will miss “visiting communities who didn’t ever expect to see the American ambassador show up in their school or their little town and showing that we care.”
The family also served as ambassadors for liberal American Judaism. As Shapiro puts it they “never shied away” from showing that they lived a “very proud egalitarian Jewish life.”
Their time in diplomatic service in Israel was bookended by bat mitzvahs for two of their daughters at a Conservative synagogue. Liat observed hers shortly after the family's arrival in Israel, and Merav, at the very end of their stint.
In their final week as an ambassador's kids, Merav and Shira say, they are savoring every moment of their unique experience, having what they call YOLO (You Only Live Once) week - swimming in the residence pool, going to the beach, watching a movie on the widescreen TV and playing on the huge lawn. “I’ll miss the garden and the staff most,” says Shira.
Starting Friday, they go back to being regular children in a regular household, helping with the cooking, cleaning and laundry. “We’ve been talking a lot” about chores, Fisher says.