Israel’s Ex-US Envoy Says Jewish State at ‘Special Time in History’ Due to ‘Very Good Relationship’ With Trump Administration
Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval has lived the Jewish state’s short history as fully as almost any man. Born in Danzig in 1930, he made aliyah with his family to what was then British Mandatory Palestine when he was eight years old. After studying at, among other places, the University of California Berkeley, Shoval served in Israel’s Foreign Ministry and later the Knesset, where he helped found not one but two political parties: David Ben-Gurion’s Rafi, and then the far more successful Likud, which created an upheaval in Israeli society when in 1977 it broke Labor’s decades-long hold on power.
Shoval’s career hit its peak during his two terms as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, DC, always a prestigious and coveted position given the importance of the alliance with the US. He held the post during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and took part in the high-profile and contentious Madrid Conference in 1991 between Israel, Arab states and the Palestinians; as well as the equally-controversial Wye River Conference in 1998.
In his new book, Jerusalem and Washington: A Life in Politics and Diplomacy, Shoval gives the inside story of these and many other extraordinary events in his life and career.
Seated in his spacious office in the heart of Tel Aviv, Shoval has the air of a man far younger than his almost 90 years. He is quick-witted, energetic, humorous and cautiously analytical, drawing on his extraordinary lifetime of experience to assess Israel’s present and future.
Both of these, Shoval believes, are at a pivotal point, brought about in part by Israel’s relationship with the Trump administration, giving the country a unique opportunity to advance its interests.
“This is a very special time in history,” he says. “I don’t like to use the term, ‘This is fateful,’ or whatever, but we have a very good relationship with the present American administration. I don’t know how long it will last.”
“We have a special favorable situation now internationally, because of America, Russia, the Arab states and so on,” he observes. “If we God forbid should waste these remaining two years, let’s say, and not try to move forward what must be basically Israel’s most important aim — strengthen Israel’s security, militarily and diplomatically and politically — at a very fortunate time, which could change in two years, for different reasons, I’m not just speaking about American politics, I think that would be a great mistake.”
Asked whether Trump is, as some have claimed, the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House, Shoval notes, “I think there’s no such thing as absolute friendship or absolute enmity when you talk about relations between countries. I think that Trump has certain inclinations and views on the global scene which support the way Israel sees the situation in the world and its own situation in the Middle East. And as long as there is this commonality of views, it’s a good thing for Israel.”
Regarding the future post-Trump era, Shoval looks back at his old mentor, the late legendary soldier and statesman Moshe Dayan, and states, “If there were another leader, another president, and one day there will be, I would once again follow what Dayan used to say — and there were confrontations at that time too — try to avoid a confrontation with America except on very vital issues, because with a country like America, a democratic country like America, you can always try to postpone decisions and try to work out a compromise, therefore you should play it by ear.”
“And I’m saying this now because I believe that right now the situation is very favorable to Israel, which doesn’t mean that if there is a change in America it must be completely negative,” he emphasizes. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Regarding the Trump administration’s emerging Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, kicked off this week at the Bahrain economic workshop, Shoval is pessimistic, something he bases on his experience as a diplomat, particularly at the Madrid Conference, where he recalls, “It was clear that the Palestinians, who were not official representatives of the PLO, but we knew that they got instructions from Tunis, that they made it very clear that they were not interested in any sort of accommodation with Israel.”
“That became doubly clear later on after the change of government, after I had left my position, the so-called second Camp David conference with [Yasser] Arafat, at the end of which both President Clinton and then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that it became clear to us that we had no partner for peace,” he remembers. “And that’s probably still the situation today.”
“And if you look at the Trump ‘plan of the century,’ basically the Palestinian attitude is, ‘We don’t want anything which would ipso facto lead to us recognizing the right of the Jewish people to a state,’” he notes. “And that’s the main issue why they oppose it. Not because of what they say, ‘We don’t want to talk about economics before there’s…’ It’s nonsense. You can talk about economics without giving up your political aims. On the contrary, it would help them to advance their political aims if they had a stronger economy. But they don’t want it.”
“And so the situation was clear to us even then,” he says of Madrid, “and is still clear to us, unfortunately, because Israel wants to achieve some sort of accommodation. Right now, it seems to be stuck.”
I ask the ambassador to look back on the past again, particularly to Israel’s two most controversial policy moves of the last few decades: The Oslo peace process and the disengagement from Gaza.
“I think Oslo was a mistake, by and large,” he says, “because of one principal issue. Not necessarily the issue that people on the extreme right raise, that it could or would actually lead to Palestinian statehood. This would have depended also on developments. But I think the major sin of Oslo was legitimizing the PLO.”
“The PLO was out of the country,” he continued. “They were in Tunis, after the first Lebanese war. They had no standing, no official standing, and Oslo gave them not only official standing, but exclusive official standing.”
“Now, it should have been clear to the authors or negotiators of Oslo that Arafat and his group represented principally the Palestinian diaspora,” he asserts.
“So it was short-sighted to bring them back,” he says of the PLO. “And I think [Yitzhak] Rabin in his own heart and mind understood this quite early on. Perhaps not at the beginning but I think he understood it and he even expressed himself that Arafat was really cheating Israel.”
On the Gaza disengagement, Shoval sees less a miscalculation than a missed opportunity.
“One of the criticisms of Gaza at the time was we shouldn’t do anything unilaterally; we should have gotten something in return,” he says. “In principle, I’m not against unilateral actions. I mean most of what Israel or the Zionist movement has done over the years was unilateral, including establishing the State of Israel and many other things. But here there was an opportunity to get not only some sort of not only vocal but practical concessions from the Palestinians’ senior leadership, but perhaps also from the United States.”
Referring to President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepting that Israel would not be expected to withdraw completely to the pre-1967 borders, Shoval notes, “Things which later under Sharon and Bush did actually take place, like the letter of Bush, new realities and so on.”
However, he insists, “more could have been done. The way the disengagement was done was actually just leaving, closing the door, goodbye. So that I think was really basically mishandled.”
During Shoval’s tenure as ambassador, a mini-crisis erupted between President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over negotiations with the Arab states, in which Bush sought to use loan guarantees for the absorption of Russian Jewish immigrants to force Israel’s hand. I ask him to compare this to the intense rivalry between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, culminating in Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech before Congress opposing the nuclear deal with Iran.
“For Bush, this matter of the settlements and the Palestinian issue was something he very much wanted to accomplish,” he says. “I think because he saw himself very much as a foreign policy president, he wanted this achievement. And he was annoyed by Israel’s positions, which he thought was something that a country like Israel should not take upon itself.”
“With Obama it was different,” he goes on to say. “Obama, I think a priori, before he even entered the White House, had a certain, you could call it ideological or pragmatic attitude toward the Middle East: That America must create a new relationship with the Muslim world, the Arab world, and his attempts to create a relationship with Iran at the very beginning.”
“He thought that Netanyahu, who led almost the international campaign against the nuclear rising Iran, on which he was right of course, as we now know, was a fly in the ointment,” Shoval states. “Who is he or who are they to fight me, Obama, on the American political scene?”
“Netanyahu’s speech in the US Congress is, of course, part of that,” he says. “Was it a mistake or not? On the one hand it was not a mistake, because it really increased the recognition of the threat of Iran in the Congress, in the world. On the other hand, although one can never know exactly how things develop, I think it had a negative impact on Israel’s relationship right now with the Democratic Party.”
The topic of the Democrats’ seeming disconnection from Israel has been the object of much discussion of late, but Shoval does not see it as solely the result of Netanyahu’s actions.
“Not only because of that,” he says. “I think the main fault lies with the new elements in the Democratic Party. I don’t even call it ‘left.’ I call it anti-establishment in every sense of the word.”
These anti-establishment Democrats, he points out, “put all sorts of issues into the same pot, whether it’s Me Too or whether it’s gay rights — all important issues — whether it’s the dire story of Afro-Americans in America — and the Palestinians, as if this were part of the same thing.”
“And this is a trend today which is worrying to Israel, because the Democratic Party has traditionally, historically been a mainstay of support for Israel,” he notes. “And right now it’s lopsided. Main support comes from the Republicans, whereas support among Democrats has lessened. I’m not saying it’s disappeared, but it’s lessened.”
“There are today members of Congress from the Democratic left who are actually legitimizing even the activities of BDS, which is an all-out antisemitic and anti-Israel organization whose aim is the destruction of the State of Israel,” he observes. “And that is a reality which not only Israel, but American Jews must be very, very concerned with.”
On the topic of American Jews, Shoval thinks that the idea of a growing rift between them and Israel is “a bit overblown,” but there is an issue with “the attitude of official Israel towards non-Orthodox American Jews.”
“I think this is a major problem; not only for Israel, I think it’s a major problem for the Jewish people, the Jewish community in America in particular,” he says. “Although Netanyahu himself and most Israelis support the position of American non-Orthodox Jews to have full rights as Jews in holy places and religious practice, because of certain political realities in Israel, and in spite of very serious attempts by Netanyahu in his different governments to change the situation, he has not succeeded.”
“But I can only hope that in spite of that, and in spite of the visceral opposition of most American Jews to the Trump regime, Jews will understand, especially non-Orthodox Jews — Orthodox Jews will remain Jews whatever happens — but liberal, progressive, Reform, Conservative Jews, what will keep them basically Jewish is the close relationship with the State of Israel,” he states.
“I said at an AIPAC conference years ago, 20 years ago, those Jews who are not interested in Israel are not interested in remaining Jews,” he says. “Israel will have to do a lot about that, but the American Jewish leadership will have to do a lot about that. Otherwise, part of American Jewry will disappear, which I think is a tragedy, and I’m saying this not as an Israeli but as a Jew. Jewish people have so much to be proud about, in their history and their legacy and their contribution to the world at large.”
This sentiment extends to Shoval’s view of the country whose history he has lived.
“Without trying to sound like a Pollyanna, we as young people, we were sure there would be a Jewish state,” he says. “We were sure that this was going to happen. But realistically, objectively, this wasn’t sure at all. The odds were against us. Here we were, 500,000 Jews. Most of the Jews in Europe had been murdered during the Holocaust, which would have been our main human reserve for the State of Israel. Arab states around us were getting independence, were building up armies. So with the attitude of the British, the unclear attitude of the Americans and the Russians, if it hadn’t been for a person like Ben-Gurion, who knows?”
“Objectively, Israel — if you take just one fact: 500,000 Jews with very mediocre economy in the country, successfully absorbing within a very short time a million immigrants, sharing what we didn’t have with them,” he states. “This was an unprecedented achievement. And fighting a war and winning it.”
“But Israel was so poor at the beginning,” he notes. “And if I look at that situation and I look at Israel today, I think this is the biggest historical success in world history or modern world history. Compared to any of the other countries which achieved independence at the same time. And the odds against us were much more severe than most of the other countries.”
“So I’m happy about what Israel has achieved,” he says. “And Israel is today one of the most successful high-tech countries in the world. When Israel is an important center of cultural activity. When Israel has in the meantime integrated another million immigrants from Russia. Israel being military strong. I think we shouldn’t be satisfied, but we should be happy with what we’ve accomplished.”
“Satisfied we should never be,” he adds. “Jewish people should always strive for more. Obviously, I would like to see a different relationship between us and our neighbors. But if that is not possible, perhaps the best we can achieve is some sort of de facto relationship, not necessarily to love each other but at least to avoid fighting each other. And I think a strong Israel as it is today can accomplish that.”
I ask him if he is an optimist, as he certainly sounds like one, and Shoval simply smiles and says, “I think Jews have to be optimists.”