Josh Paul on Why He Resigned From the State Department Over Arms to Israel

6 minute read
By Mathias Hammer

A senior State Department official who worked in the bureau overseeing arms transfers resigned on Wednesday over the Biden administration’s decision to continue sending weapons and ammunition to Israel. His departure is a rare sign of internal dissent over the administration’s strong support for Israel as it continues airstrikes in Gaza following Hamas’s deadly attacks on Oct. 7.  The official, Josh Paul, was the director of congressional and public affairs at the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which handles arms transfers. 

In an open letter posted to LinkedIn, Paul wrote that the U.S.’s decision to rush “more arms to one side of the conflict” is “shortsighted, destructive, unjust, and contradictory to the very values that we publicly espouse.”

“I made myself a promise that I would stay for as long as I felt the harm I might do could be outweighed by the good I could do,” Paul wrote. “I am leaving today because I believe that in our current course with regards to the continued – indeed, expanded and expedited – provision of lethal arms to Israel – I have reached the end of that bargain.”

In an interview with TIME, Paul speaks about his decision to resign, why the administration may be violating the law in providing weapons to Israel, and the response he has received from his colleagues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve worked in the State Department for more than 10 years and write in an open letter that you knew the job was not “without moral complexity or moral compromise.” What led you to resign now?

First of all, the scale and scope of the crisis that is unfolding before us. Even in the worst days of the Yemen conflict, it was nothing of this scale. Second, as we deal with controversial, complex, sensitive arms transfers, in my experience, there has always been room for debate. Sometimes that debate can range for months or even years, while different stakeholders within government hammer out different approaches and ways to tackle these human rights concerns. In this instance, there has been no debate, or when there has been debate it’s been ignored. It's just been, “here are your marching orders, move as quickly as you can.” That's unique to this. 

And then the third aspect is that in past debates, even if you're not satisfied there was at least some degree of comfort that the next step is for cases to get notified to Congress, which is how the arms transfer process works. Congress does take human rights issues seriously and can hold arms sales, debate them, or even vote against them. In this instance, there is no backstop. There is no congressional appetite for debating, holding, or opposing this. So it's a combination of those three factors.

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How are U.S. arms transfers to Israel shaping the conflict?

The theory has always been that if Israel feels secure, it will be able to move towards peace with the Palestinians. But in practice the steps that Israel has taken to achieve security have all been at the expense of Palestinian good faith in the peace process—not to mention at the expense of Palestinian suffering. For that reason they have also not led to the two-state solution, which was the whole goal of the Oslo Accords. So in the end, our arming of Israel, which was sort of “take whatever you need, we want you to be secure,” has actually not led to security for Israel. I think that's more apparent in the last couple of weeks than ever.

Where does the line go between Israel’s right to self defense and what you describe in your letter as “collective punishment?”

I think there are clear guidelines in international law as to what is permissible in war and what is not. And just let's be clear, Hamas violates those every single day. But when it comes to collective punishment such as the siege laid on Gaza, what possible military benefit does it give Israel to cut off electricity and water to 2.3 million people when you're trying to target a small number comparatively of Hamas fighters? It's clearly collective punishment. 

There are a number of legal and policy measures in place to prevent arms transfers that will lead to human rights violations. Are these being implemented with regards to Israel?

Earlier this year, the Biden administration issued a new Conventional Arms Transfer policy. One of the most significant adjustments in this version of the policy was the inclusion of this “more likely than not language”—that no arms transfer will be authorized where the United States assesses that it is more likely than not that the arms to be transferred will be used by the recipient to commit human rights violations. That is a policy I believe that they are not adhering to or not even considering properly in their pending arms transfers to Israel.

Because Israel receives foreign military financing it is subject to the Leahy laws, which require the vetting of units that receive that assistance to ensure they're not engaged in gross violations of human rights. I think the process to do that for Israel specifically, within the department, is broken and politicized and has not been able to meet the requirements of the law.

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What kind of signal do you think your resignation will send to your colleagues in the administration?

I would like to think that it sends a signal that some things are worth fighting for internally. And worth giving up a significant amount for. I am hopeful that it will bring others out of the woodwork, but I don't know if it will. I certainly am encouraged by the responses that I've seen.

What have you heard from your colleagues following your resignation?

That a lot of people are wrestling with these moral dilemmas. A lot of people are deeply uncomfortable, finding this a very difficult time and faced with a lot of tough decisions. People have shared a lot of words of encouragement and support and expressions of shared feelings of how difficult the situation is.

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