WASHINGTON – After defending US President Barack Obama’s credentials on Israel for eight long years, Jewish Democrats in Washington are calling their Republican colleagues hypocritical for giving a pass to retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, a top contender for defense secretary in the Trump administration who in 2013 said that Israel may soon become an apartheid state.
Mattis’s comments, to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at the Aspen Security Forum, were made in his capacity as a private citizen.
The status quo in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is “unsustainable,” the general said. “It’s got to be directly addressed. We have got to find a way to make the two-state solution that Democrat and Republican administrations have supported.”
The former head of US Central Command said chances of a two-state solution were starting to “ebb” because of Israel’s continued settlement activity in the West Bank. “If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 [Arabs] in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote – apartheid,” he added.
Those comments began to recirculate when President- Elect Donald Trump made clear that Mattis is his top choice for the Pentagon post.
But few foreign policy conservatives, opposed to such a harsh line, expressed particular concern.
“I do think that is a double standard,” said Ron Klein, a former member of Congress and chairman of Jews for Progress, a super-PAC that campaigned against Trump during the general election. “I don’t suggest that General Mattis is anti-Israel.
But when he uses words like apartheid and those kinds of terms – very hard-edged words – I think that’s very problematic.”
The Obama administration has endured a relentless assault from the political right over its treatment of Israeli leadership, ever since Obama chose to skip the Jewish state on his first presidential visit to the Middle East in 2009. His focus on Israel as the primary agitant in its conflict with the Palestinians has caused many Jewish American groups, and Washington’s conservative foreign policy community, to label the president “anti-Israel.”
“I’m not saying General Mattis is anti-Israel, but if he were under consideration to be secretary of defense for President Obama or a President-Elect Hillary Clinton, Republicans would be tripping over themselves to condemn the Democrat as hostile to Israel,” said Aaron Keyak, who runs Bluelight Strategies, a DC-based consulting firm that works with many Jewish, pro-Israel and Democratic clients.
In a statement released on Monday, Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said that his organization has had "very positive" experiences with Mattis in "many private discussions" over the course of the last several years.
"We understand and share many of the objections to his remarks, including that he seemed to blame mostly Israel for the impasse," Makovsky said. "On the larger US military and strategic issues related to the Middle East, which a secretary of defense will have to address early on, General Mattis has notably and indisputably distinguished himself in advocating for a more robust US military posture to counter, contain and deter Iran, even at the peril of his military career, and its importance to American security and the restoration of America's position in the Middle East."
“The fact that their assessment of what qualifies someone as supportive of Israel is first determined by the candidate’s partisan affiliation is highly hypocritical and damages the much needed bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship.”
On Twitter, Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, noted the secretary of defense would not be involved in a largely diplomatic challenge. “SecDef doesn’t engage in peace process issues/negotiations,” he wrote.
But one hard-right Jewish organization, the Zionist Organization of America – one which has defended Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon, an architect of the alt-right nationalist movement – called on the president-elect not to nominate Mattis, citing his 2013 comments.
“There’s no doubt that the general has had an extraordinary and distinguished career, and that his service should be applauded and admired. He’s clearly a qualified candidate,” said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, the central community relations agency of the organized Jewish community of the US capital.
“Particularly his use of the word apartheid was not a good choice of words – I understand that he was making a comment on Israel’s future choices of demography and democracy when it comes to the West Bank, but with time the whole demographic question has been well debated.”
“But they are just a couple of quotes over a four-decade career,” Halber added. “Should he be nominated, a direct question should be posed to him and he should be given an opportunity to address it.”