WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump named retired general James “Mad Dog” Mattis, an outspoken proponent of a more aggressive American foreign policy as well as a critic of Israeli settlements, as his defense secretary, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
Mattis retired from the military in 2013 after serving three years as head of US Central Command, a position that put him in charge of all American forces in the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He is widely respected in Washington as a strategist and one of America’s most experienced combat commanders, having served for four decades in the Marine Corps. That reputation may come in handy, as Mattis’s recent retirement means he will need a Congressional waiver to sidestep rules that forbid recently discharged military officers from taking civilian government posts.
Mattis’s is also famously outspoken, having warned that Israel’s settlements threaten to turn the Jewish state into an “apartheid” system, as well as calling for a far more combative American stance toward its enemies and naming Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
Trump signaled his preference for Mattis early on, calling him a “true general’s general” in mid-November after a meeting between the two.
“General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, who is being considered for Secretary of Defense, was very impressive yesterday. A true General’s General!” Trump said on Twitter.
In July 2013, shortly after leaving his post running CENTCOM, Mattis said the current situation in Israel was “unsustainable” and that settlements were obstructing the possibility of a two-state outcome between Israelis and Palestinians, comments that may fly in the face of Trump’s position as reported by several of the president-elect’s advisers.
“The current situation is unsustainable,” Mattis told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer during a panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado when asked about the peace process.
“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,” he added. “We’ve got to get there, and the chances for it are starting to ebb because of the settlements, and where they’re at, they’re going to make it impossible to maintain the two-state option.”
Mattis specifically warned that if Israel continued to expand its settlement presence, its long-term character as a Jewish and democratic state would be at risk, ultimately leading to Israel becoming an apartheid state.
“If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers 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 said.
“That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country,” he added, presumably alluding to South Africa. “So we’ve got to work on this with a sense of urgency.”
In that same conversation, Mattis told Blitzer that the US paid a price for its support of Israel and the perception of bias it broadcast to the rest of the Arab world.
“I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” he said, “and that moderates, all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
Trump’s position on Israeli settlements is unclear, but many in Israel and the US see him as willing to tolerate at least some Israeli settlement building in much the way past Republican administrations have.
In an interview in May, the president-elect seemed to back Israeli building in settlements.
During his campaign for the presidency, he said Jerusalem was Israel’s undivided capital and vowed to move the US Embassy there, a move that would break with Washington’s policy of not recognizing Israel’s de facto annexation of East Jerusalem.
A day after Trump was elected president, his adviser Jason Greenblatt told Israel’s Army Radio that the president-elect “does not view the settlements as an obstacle to peace.”
Mattis’s comments are not out of sync with others who’ve held his role. His predecessor, General David Petraus, once told the Senate Armed Services committee that the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel.”
Mattis may serve as a moderating influence in the Trump administration on some national-security issues. Trump told New York Times reporters in late November that Mattis had impressed him by suggesting he opposed torturing terror suspects, a practice Trump has said he wants to reinstate into the US counterterrorism arsenal.
Trump told the reporters: “General Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man. I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, ‘What do you think of waterboarding?’ He said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.'”
AFP contributed to this report.