Retired General James Mattis, known to his troops as “Mad Dog Mattis,” for his habit of speaking his mind, is a potential Donald Trump pick for Secretary of Defense, and his candor has triggered a split among pro-Israel Jewish groups.
The Zionist Organization of America declared him unfit for the post comments he made three years ago, while a pro-Israel think tank gave him a surprise statement of support over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
Addressing the Aspen Security Forum in 2013, Mattis spoke frankly, perhaps too frankly for someone considering a future career in politics, about America’s support for Israel. “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that [angers] 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,” Mattis said at the forum. He also criticized the Israeli government’s continuous expansion of West Bank settlements, saying that it could “make it impossible” to reach a two-state solution and warning that if Israel does not separate from the Palestinians, “either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid.”
The Zionist Organization of America’s president Morton Klein said Mattis’s remarks “revealed a lack of appreciation for and understanding of the extraordinary value to American security resulting from a strong American-Israeli alliance and a secure Israel.” The group urged Trump not to appoint Mattis as his top Pentagon chief.
Yet the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, issued a press release describing the claims against Mattis as “ill-founded and unfair.” The group, considered conservative in its views on Middle East security and defense issues, acknowledged that it shares “many of the objections” to Mattis’s comments, but noted that he had not repeated them since.
In addition, JINSA stressed that after holding conversations with Mattis, it is assured that his pick as Defense Secretary will actually improve U.S.-Israel relations. “We recently consulted several notable Israelis and Americans in the civic and military spheres who also have interacted with him and they share our confidence in his support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” the group stated. It described Mattis’s commitment to a strong American presence in the Middle East and his outspoken views regarding the danger posed by Iran, as “heartening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that a strong State of Israel is necessary for its own sake and important for a strong America.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.