WASHINGTON — One of President-elect Donald Trump’s leading candidates for secretary of defense has said Israel’s settlement project could turn the country into an apartheid state and that the United States pays a price for its support of Israel.
Retired Marine Corps general James Mattis met with the incoming president Saturday at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to reportedly discuss a cabinet post.
According to CNN, Trump was extremely impressed by Mattis, who is now his top choice to run the Defense Department, a position whose power over the US military is second only to that of the president.
Mattis’s resume includes over two years heading the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) under President Barack Obama from August 2010 to March 2013, a post that has command authority for all US forces in the Middle East.
During Mattis’s tenure, he held a commanding presence in the war theaters on Afghanistan and Iraq, experiences for which Trump offered high praise after their hour-long meeting. “All I can say is he is the real deal,” he said. “The real deal.”
When Trump was asked by reporters if Mattis would have a role in the upcoming administration, he said: “We’ll see. We’ll see. He’s just a brilliant, wonderful man. What a career. We are going to see what happens, but he is the real deal.”
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 seem to fly in the face of Trump’s position as reported by his Israel 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 broadcasts 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, he 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 the “conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel.”
If Trump selected Mattis to head the Pentagon, his 2013 retirement from the military would require a Congressional waiver to grant him eligibility for the position. US statutes require any retired officer to spend at least seven years outside the military before obtaining extensive responsibilities within the Department of Defense.
Given the Republican control of both houses of Congress, it is highly likely that permission would be granted.