WASHINGTON — When Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell sat down for an interview before a crowd of nearly 1,000 last year, his interlocutor, New York Times columnist David Brooks, wondered why the political heavyweight had agreed to openly discuss a matter as sensitive as his diplomatic efforts.
“Dan Shapiro told me to come,” Mitchell told Brooks and the standing room only crowd at the District’s Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. “When he gave me the order, I saluted.”
Such is the stature of Shapiro, 41, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa. He has long been regarded as one of President Obama’s most trusted Middle East confidants.
In the coming weeks, though, Shapiro is expected to emerge from behind the foreign policy curtain as the administration’s new public face in Israel.
According to numerous reports, Shapiro soon will be selected to succeed James Cunningham as the U.S. ambassador to Israel, though it is unclear when he will formally be nominated.
Shapiro, a Washington resident and prominent member of the local Jewish community, is expected to shine as a diplomat, say numerous foreign policy experts and Jewish communal officials across the partisan spectrum.
“You won’t meet anyone who’s a harsh critic of Dan,” said Steven Rosen, director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington project. He’s “one of the [administration’s] insiders and people like him.”
Shapiro has earned plaudits from White House officials, leaders of the American Jewish communal world and others for his sharp understanding of a complex and rapidly evolving region. Experts say his nuanced take on the Middle East will make him a vital asset not only to the White House, but also the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office.
“Shapiro is from the Jewish community, he is a committed Jew and makes no secret about it,” said Rosen, a former top official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “The key Israelis already know him and he’s going to have a very easy time walking into the prime minister’s office and being taken seriously.”
With a nonfunctional peace process amplifying tensions between the U.S. and Israel, Shapiro is viewed as a reassuring pick, said Kenneth Weinstein, chief executive officer of the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
“This is someone who has played a key role in the relationship and, frankly, improving the relationship [between Washington and Israel] over the past year,” said Weinstein.
Shapiro was “the best person for the job,” offered former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who himself was rumored to be in the running for the ambassadorship.
“He has been a centerpiece in every initiative and decision the administration has made since day one,” said Wexler.
Some of those decisions, however, have cost the White House some of its pro-Israel clout.
Since taking office, the Obama administration repeatedly has encountered turbulence in its dealings with the Israelis and has taken flak from the American pro-Israel community for, among other things, pressuring the Jewish state to halt settlement construction, including in Jerusalem.
“The administration’s policy has not produced the outcome it’s wanted, and it’s widely understood that the unusual approach they began with backfired,” said Josh Block, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.
Yet somehow, Shapiro is seen as being separate from the administration’s most controversial policies toward Israel, despite having been a central presence in team Obama from the early days and a chief architect of its Middle East outlook.
He has escaped unscathed, observers say, because even the administration’s sharpest pro-Israel critics see Shapiro as someone who genuinely cares about the Jewish state.
“As our ambassador, Dan is the kind of guy who can play a lead role in enlarging what is already our most important relationship in the Middle East,” said Block.
“An asset he brings is his clear commitment to Israel’s security and survival,” added former Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.), who worked with Shapiro while campaigning for Obama. “It’s a part of his persona that is unmistakable.”
Key players in both Israel and America “don’t think he has an ideological agenda,” said Rosen.
“The root of it,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, “is that Dan is profoundly a mensch.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “and [his adviser] Ron Dermer see that, [Palestinian Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad has seen this and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton has seen it,” said Harris, who has been a close friend of Shapiro’s for several decades.
In 2008, when then-Senator Obama began forming his campaign squad, Shapiro, a native of Champaign, Ill., was brought aboard as an adviser on the Middle East and Jewish community issues.
To that point he had gained a solid reputation on Capitol Hill, where from 1995 to 1999 he served as a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Following that, Shapiro served on the NSC under President Clinton before becoming foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bill Nelson.
A longtime member of the Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, Shapiro enjoys the added bonus of being well regarded in the local Jewish community.
“He does very well in the Arab world, and he shouldn’t be penalized because he can lain Torah and lead Musaf and his kids go to day school,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist who also belongs to Adas Israel. “He’s just the nicest guy and there’s nobody who doesn’t like him.”
Hadar Susskind, J Street’s director of policy and strategy, said Shapiro’s selection would have one significant downside.
“The single most important aspect here is that my 5-year-old daughter is really disappointed that his 5-year-old daughter might be leaving the Jewish Primary Day School.”
Two of Shapiro’s three children attend the Washinton school, and his wife, Julie Fisher, formerly served as its director of general studies.
When the family eventually relocates to Tel Aviv, where the U.S. foreign mission is based, Shapiro is expected to bring newfound attention to what in recent years has been a relatively low-impact diplomatic post.