George Shultz may be 95, but he’s still racking up those frequent-flier miles.
The former secretary of state traveled from San Francisco to Israel last month to confer with government officials, among them Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Knesset members Isaac Herzog and Yuli Edelstein. He also came to honor the memory of an Israeli friend who was killed liberating Jerusalem during the Six-Day War in 1967. He was there as a guest of the Israel Democracy Institute, on whose board he has served for 25 years.
Shultz said his meeting in Jerusalem with the widow and son of Joseph Levy, whom he met when Levy studied economics under Shultz at the University of Chicago, was very moving.
“He was a very able young man,” he said in a phone interview about his former student, who left a lasting impression. “He taught me three things about Israel: There is a wonderful individual quality to its people, they have an instinctive patriotism, and they live in a lousy neighborhood.”
Shultz has had plenty of experience with that lousy neighborhood. He was serving under President Ronald Reagan in 1983, when terrorists bombed a Marines barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American military personnel. He also took the lead in establishing diplomatic ties with the PLO in 1988, setting the stage for a period of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.
Today, Shultz is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and he remains engaged in domestic politics and international diplomacy. Shultz wouldn’t weigh in on the current presidential campaign, whose marquee event is the hotly contested, Trump-dominated GOP primary contest. But he was willing to elaborate on the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States, as well as on the rift between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations, which has frayed that relationship.
“Trust is the coin of the realm,” he said. “What’s missing now is trust. That’s what we have to rebuild.”
Few issues drove a deeper wedge between the two allies than the Iran nuclear deal, concluded and implemented last year. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government bitterly decried the deal for allowing Iran to table but not abandon any ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.
Now that it’s a done deal, Shultz cautions, “It’s very important that the verification process on the nuclear matter be observed carefully, and that’s going to be hard — Iran has already violated the spirit of the agreement with ballistic missile tests.”
He also said that if he had been secretary of state during the negotiations, he would have applied the “Reagan playbook” to secure a better deal for Israel and the West.
“You establish that when you say you’re going to do something, you do it. You’re realistic in your appraisal of the party you negotiate with. In the case of Iran, they are a state sponsor of terror, they want a ballistic missile, and they want nukes. And so your agenda is to get at those things. This [deal] was only about one of those things.”
Shultz’s deep connection to Israel includes his staunch support for Soviet Jewry back when it mattered. As secretary of state, he offered Soviet leaders what he called “a very careful presentation about the emergence of the information age and how a closed society would be left behind. I told them they needed to open up if they want to be part of the modern age.”
That helped open the gates of Jewish emigration, with many former Soviet Jews relocating to Israel and enriching the nation in many ways. At a gathering at the Shultz home in San Francisco not long after the exodus, former White House economic adviser Herbert Stein told Shultz that “Israel had just come into a lot of smart, educated people, and that’s better than oil.”
While Shultz is keeping mum on the Republican primaries, he did address the need to repair the relationship between Netanyahu and the U.S. president, whoever that turns out to be after the November elections.
“What you need is a sense of real communication between the president and prime minister,” he said. “Both have to listen to each other, say and do things they carry out, so that you develop a pattern of trust.”
As for Israel-Palestinian relations, if he were back in Foggy Bottom, Shultz knows how he would help move the needle of what has become a poisonous relationship.
“The emphasis now should be on working it out so that people lead a decent life,” he said. “I have every expectation that Israel will stay a secure, prosperous state, but it has lots of work to do.”