Josh Paul, who until last week was the director of congressional and public affairs at the State Department’s bureau that handles arms transfers and security assistance to foreign governments, quit in protest over policies that he said amount to a green light for Israeli retaliation regardless of the toll on civilians.
The State Department did not directly comment on Paul’s resignation, saying it was a personnel matter. In a letter to staff, Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged the personal difficulties some are facing.
Paul spoke with White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara about what he said was a lack of responsible debate in his former office on providing Israel with weapons to fight its war in Gaza and how he believes it undermines U.S. strategic interests and values.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: Why did you resign?
Paul: I resigned because I felt that we were in the midst of major policy decisions concerning arms transfers to Israel, but they were not receiving the attention needed and typically received on human rights concerns, civilian casualties’ concerns, in the context of the conflict that we’re currently seeing in Gaza.
VOA: What happened after Oct. 7?
Paul: Very quickly after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas — which, let me be clear, was an absolute atrocity and should be condemned and Israel does have a right to respond to — we started to receive requests from Israel for a large variety of munitions.
Typically, when we receive such requests from partners, there’s going to be a policy process where we look at the partner’s track record on human rights, we look at other factors including risks of civilian harm. There’s a Conventional Arms Transfer Policy that guides these decisions, which says that arms shall not be transferred when there is a more likely than not risk that they will be used for human rights violations.
As the Israeli operation in Gaza started with a massive bombardment, we could already see hundreds and then thousands of Palestinian civilians dying. And yet there was no policy debate, no questions about whether we were going to pause and take into account our regular policies and legal requirements. It was just, “let’s rush these arms to Israel as quickly as we can, and consequences be damned.”
VOA: That was an explicit directive? Your superiors at the State Department say that we do not have time for debate, we want everybody to agree on this?
Paul: That’s correct.
VOA: Was there an explanation when you protested?
Paul: I don’t think an explanation was needed. The understanding was this is Israel. This is a special case. This is how the administration is approaching it. That was made apparent not only internally, but externally with the immediate reaction from the White House to Israel and its response to the attacks.
VOA: You worked in that bureau for 11 years. Has there ever been other instances where the decision to send weapons occurred without debate?
Paul: No, there’s always been debates. And let me be clear, I’m not inherently opposed to the transfer of U.S. arms. There are instances in which they do a lot of good, in Ukraine, in support to other allies in Europe. But even in those circumstances, even for our closest allies, if there is hint controversy, it is always discussed.
VOA: Even before this Hamas attack, we sent $3 billion to $4 billion [in military aid] to Israel annually. Has it helped Israeli security? Has it helped regional stability?
Paul: I don’t think it has. I’m all for Israelis to live in peace and security, as I am for Palestinians to live in peace and security. The problem is that we have assumed the obstacle to a lasting political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a lack of Israeli security, and if Israel feels more secure then it will be able to make the concessions that it needs to allow a Palestinian state to emerge.
The problem with the blanket of U.S. security and the unquestioning nature of it, Israel feels free to push the envelope, to expand settlements in the West Bank, to build the security barriers across the West Bank, to continue the siege of Gaza. … Our security systems have, in the long term, not made Israel more secure.
VOA: Many in the Arab world and the global south see U.S. backing of Israel as part of this idea that the U.S. applies double standards in its foreign policy. Would you care to comment on that?
Paul: That’s a really important point. This administration rightly sees strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China as the driving, most concerning aspects of international relations. In that conflict, the United States has three edges: military strength, our global network of alliances and partnerships, and our values.
Our posture on Israel is significantly undermining that strategic competition by raising questions about our values. How is the United States any different from any other country in the world if it’s willing to walk away from its values when it is politically expedient? It does us not only moral harm, I think it does us strategic harm as well.
VOA: The administration is now trying to balance the support for Israel and humanitarian concerns as well as stop the conflict from broadening. This is a tough balancing act for the president. What is your message to him?
Paul: I fully agree that broadening the conflict would be a disaster for everyone involved, and I am heartened for the focus the administration has put on that, including through deploying carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean. It sends a strong message.
I think part of preventing the conflict from widening is also minimizing civilian casualties in Gaza. I think the more Palestinian civilians are killed, the harder it will be for stability in other countries, in other parts of the region. So, if we want regional stability, if we don’t want this conflict to expand, we need to make sure that it ends as quickly as possible and is carried out as carefully as possible with regards to civilian harm.
VOA: You’re making that link between civilian casualties in Gaza to broader regional instability because of the anger of populations in the Arab world?
Paul: We’ve seen the impact on U.S. reputational damage and diplomatic damage that Israel’s response has already cost us in the region. There are consequences to U.S. strategic interests both in the region and around the world. And I think we need to be cognizant of that.
I think that there is a disconnect between the political level in the U.S. and the civil service and American population. I do hope that over time there can be a sea-change at the political level that brings it more in line with what the American people can expect from our foreign policy.