WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the Pentagon said Thursday that the United States should continue treating Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital, breaking with Republican members of Congress and intimations the incoming president could fulfill his campaign pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Asked during his confirmation hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee if he supported the embassy’s relocation, retired Marine Corps general James “Mad Dog” Mattis said, “Sir, right now I stick with the US policy.”
Facing an hours-long session of questions from senators, he emphasized: “The capital of Israel that I go to, sir, is Tel Aviv, sir, because that’s where all their government people are.” He also noted, however, the determination was not part of his remit as defense secretary nominee.
“I would defer to the nominee of secretary of state on that, sir,” he said.
The last three successive presidents have maintained that the future status of Jerusalem should be settled in final negotiations between the parties, as both Israelis and Palestinians claim the city as their rightful capital.
But Trump has indicated since his victory in November he will no longer honor that tradition. In December, he nominated his longtime friend and attorney David Friedman, a vocal supporter and donor to West Bank settlements, to be the next US ambassador to Israel
In a statement announcing the selection, Friedman said he expected to carry out his duties in “Israel’s eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Trump also repeatedly promised during the campaign that he would move the embassy. While past presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also vowed on the trail to do so, neither fulfilled that promise once they assumed the responsibilities of conducting America’s foreign policy.
Mattis’s position further underlines a difference with most Republican on Capitol Hill, who make up the majority in both chambers of Congress.
The Obama administration allowed passage of a United Nations Security Council Resolution last month that condemns settlements as a violation of international law. The text states that all areas Israel captured in the 1967 war — which includes East Jerusalem and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, with the Temple Mount and Western Wall, the holiest sites in Judaism — are “occupied Palestinian territory.”
Earlier this month, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) proposed the Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act, which urges Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there.
Mattis declined to comment on the motion Thursday, telling the senators he needed more information on the particulars of its content.
He also diverged from most GOP lawmakers in expressing support for a two-state outcome to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“If it brings peace to the Middle East,” he said, while also indicating he is willing to hear alternatives despite his skepticism that another resolution to the conflict exists.
“If there’s another solution, I’d be happy to hear what it is,” he said, before later stressing America had a “vital interest” in the two sides reaching a peaceful accommodation to their decades-long dispute.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, also endorsed the two-state solution.
In the past, Mattis has been a critic of the Israeli settlement enterprise, asserting that its continued expansion imperiled Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic 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 told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in July 2013.
During that same conversation, he also said the United States pays a security price with the rest of the Arab world for its support of Israel.
Mattis, who headed the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) under President Obama from August 2010 to March 2013 (a post that has command authority for all US forces in the Middle East with the exception of Israel), did imply during Thursday’s hearing that his former boss did not always send a comforting message to Israel as an ally.
There was “a sense” in Jerusalem, Mattis said, that the administration has been “indifferent to their security concerns.” Under that assessment, he told committee members, it was “time to build trust” with the Jewish state.
Mattis also addressed the Iran nuclear deal, saying he thought it was an “imperfect” pact, but that the US had an obligation to abide by its terms. “When America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies,” he said.
During the campaign, Trump sent conflicting messages on the Iran accord, suggesting he would both abrogate the deal and enforce rigorously. Since being elected, his top advisers have indicated he will not withdraw from the deal unilaterally unless Iran violates the agreement.