Why this U.S. government arms dealer resigned over weapon transfers to Israel

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U.S. President Joe Biden, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

For more than a decade, Josh Paul oversaw arms deals for the U.S. government. But in mid-October, he suddenly resigned.

"I resigned on October 18th because I don’t believe that U.S. arms should be provided into a context when they are going to kill thousands of civilians," Paul says.

Under Paul's tenure, the U.S. provided arms to numerous governments that went on to use those weapons to violate human rights, including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Honduras.

But he says that when it comes to current arms sales to Israel, the entire process has been different.

"What was different here was that there was just no interest in the administration or in Congress in having any sort of discussion or debate, Paul says. "And therefore, there was absolutely no difference that I could make in this arms transfer process for Israel."

Today, On Point: We'll talk with the man who can no longer look the other way.


Josh Paul, former director in the Bureau of Political Military Affairs in the State Department, the Bureau responsible for U.S. security assistance and arms transfers. He resigned on Oct. 18, 2023, due to a policy disagreement concerning the U.S.’s continued lethal assistance to Israel.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: For 11 years, Josh Paul was a director in the State Department's Bureau of Political Military Affairs, the office that is responsible for U.S. security assistance and arms transfers to other countries. He resigned on October 18th. During Paul's tenure at the State Department, the U.S. provided arms to many countries around the world, including governments that have violated human rights and committed significant civilian harm, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and Honduras.

Paul wrote in his resignation letter, quote, "In my eleven years, I have made more moral compromises than I can recall, each heavily, but each with my promise to myself in mind and intact.

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." End quote. And Josh Paul joins us now. Josh Paul, welcome to On Point.

JOSH PAUL: Hello. Thank you very much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So in the 11 years that you've been in this position or were in the position at the State Department, that crosses over three administrations, right? Obama, Trump and Biden. And I understand that there was some version of a resignation letter in your desk for years. Why was it there in the first place?

PAUL: Yes, that's correct. It was there because as you say, the transfer of arms is always a morally perilous business. There are always difficult decisions to be made and outcomes that you may not particularly agree with. And I drafted that letter and held it in my desk under the previous administration, under the Trump administration. Where, in particular, we were focused on the transfer of arms to some partners in the Middle East with autocratic governments, with poor human rights records.

And so I drafted this letter feeling that if the time ever came where I could not make a difference, I would submit it and resign. I tore it up at the end of the administration, and said, "Phew, won't need that anymore." Yet here I am, so maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to do.

CHAKRABARIT: Now, specifically, your job was to convince Congress to provide military grant assistance, military aid, the kind of aid that right now is going to Israel and other countries around the world, essentially to convince Congress to support the transfers. Is that correct?

PAUL: To do two things. Yes. So on the one hand, to convince Congress to provide the military grant assistance that we provide to many countries around the world, of which Israel is on an annual basis, the most significant in terms of dollar value. And to convince Congress to approve arms transfers, major arms transfers, which are notified to Congress under the law.

And then as part of that, as well, for myself to be a part of the approval process for those major arms transfers. So this is not a situation in which I was standing by and watching others do work that I had a problem with. This was a situation in which I was very actively being asked both to approve arms transfers and then to convince Congress to approve them as well.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So we're going to get into that process a little bit later. But on October 7th, of course, the day that Hamas attacked Israel, killed over 1,200 took more than 200 hostages. What happened on that day? Maybe not specifically that led to your resignation, but that felt different. Because you've said once an Israeli request came in on that day, something felt different from the start.

What was that?

PAUL: Yes, and let's be clear, Hamas's attack on October 7th was an atrocity, and it was an atrocity of a scale unlike any that Israel has seen in certainly many decades. And I think Hamas therefore bears a significant amount of the blame for what has happened since then, as well as what happened on that day, of course.

So my first reaction, I think, like everyone's, was absolute shock and dismay at the bloodshed on the ground, at the tragedies that we were seeing unfolding. My second feeling was just this sort of sickness or feeling in the pit of my stomach. Of, "Oh no, I know what's coming next." And we all knew what was coming next because we've seen this before. Again, not at the scale that we see today, either, in terms of Israel's operations or, again, of Hamas's attack. But it was clear that the Israeli response would be massive and result in many civilian casualties. And indeed, as those Israeli requests began to roll in, as soon as that evening, I thought to myself, "Are we going to be complicit in what is certain to be a massive loss of civilian life?"

Or is this an opportunity to say, not only is there a better way of doing this, and we shouldn't be a part of this sort of massive loss of life, but what we've been doing for the last 20 years has led to this point, and it has clearly not worked, has not provided security, obviously, for Palestinians, but also for Israelis.

And so if what you've been doing hasn't worked, maybe it's time to think about doing something different.

CHAKRABARTI: So that's a very important point that I want to pick up with you a little later in the show. But you're a very rare voice coming out of a critically important office in the State Department.

And I wonder if you could help shine a light on a little bit of the process that goes on. First of all, in emergency situations like this, when Israel began rolling in the requests, as you said, that first evening. What does that look like? How does that happen? Who receives those requests?

PAUL: Sure. So there are a couple of different channels through which military requests or requests for military equipment can come. The two main ones are through the foreign military sales process, which is a government-to-government process, in which case the ministry of defense of the partner or perhaps their embassy in Washington will reach out directly to the department of defense who will then channel those requests to the state department for review.

Or there is the direct commercial sales process, which is less transparent, I would say, to the public process, but actually accounts for about two thirds to three quarters of U.S. arms exports and is which a U.S. company will apply to the state department for a license to export defense articles or services.

Immediately after the October 7th attacks, we started hearing from the Israeli government with outlines of what they were going to be asking for, with requests to expedite some pending cases that were already with the department for review. And these all go through a very considered process typically. The way the department is structured essentially is that for any issue, there are a number of stakeholders. So in the case of arms transfers, there is the Bureau I used to work for, Political Military Affairs, that oversees them globally. There is the Regional Bureau. In this case, the Middle Eastern Bureau, NEA.

There's the Human Rights Bureau. And there is a process of debate and discussion that goes on in almost every case, to make sure everyone is okay based on their expertise and equities.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now Prior to October 7th, the U.S. was already the largest supplier of military assistance and equipment to Israel, more than 90% of Israeli imports which totals to, what, $3.8 billion in U. S. military aid annually to Israel.

And as folks likely know, President Biden has also requested $14.3 billion for further arms. Now, of course that request is meeting some resistance in Congress. But as far as I understand, the request includes, and perhaps also some of this equipment has been transferred already, things such as small diameter bombs, joint direct attack munition, 155-millimeter artillery shells, a million rounds of ammunition, among others.

Now, is that what Israel requested, or the United States had already had in the pipeline to send there?

PAUL: It's a combination. And the reason for that is that in addition to the mechanisms I've described, the U.S. also maintains a stockpile in Israel called the War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel or WRSA-I. And this is a U.S. military stockpile theoretically for U.S. military use, in the event of a regional contingency that Israel is allowed to tap into. If the secretary of defense, U.S. secretary of defense asserts that there is a need for them to do, which was done in this case very quickly.

And so in addition to funneling its requests through the U.S. government for the regular process. Some of which require notification to Congress. There are a couple of notifications now pending before Congress, one of which now faces a joint resolution of disapproval. So we'll see how that goes.

But in addition to those, Israel was able to draw directly from U.S. stocks, a lot of the munitions that you've just been describing.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So on October 7th, that evening, I presume there begins a flurry of activity, right? In the office that you were at and through other diplomatic channels, between the United States and Israel and the Defense Department.

You resigned because you say the process was different versus normal protocol, when it came to U.S. arms sales to other countries around the world. What's different?

PAUL: What's different is the absence of debate. As I said, there's always been discussion, under the previous administration, under previous administrations about requests when there are concerns, whether it be myself raising them, others within the department, frequently the Human Rights Bureau. What was different here is that there was no space or time for those debates.

A request would come in, at 10 o'clock in the morning, and they'd say, "We need to get this issued and authorized by three o'clock in the afternoon." And I tried, the week after October 7th, to raise some of the concerns we've just been discussing, about the moribund policy, about the risk of civilian casualties.

And it was met with silence or directions just to set those concerns aside and to move forward.

CHAKRABARTI: Did you hear the argument that there was no time for the normal discussion, because of the emergency situation in Israel?

PAUL: So no one made that argument specifically. I think that argument could be made, except that, of course, Israel has significant stockpiles of arms for its own, in its own stockpiles, and it had the access to the WRSA-I stockpile.

So the idea that there is some urgency to some of the requests we were getting, I think, was more premised on the political, and I know this sounds cynical, but on the political opportunity. On the sense that the barn doors were now open, no one was going to raise concerns or object, as they had in the past, in the context of immediately post October 7th.

And I think we see that reflected as well in the president's request for supplemental funding. You were just requesting, there's $4 billion in there for Iron Beam, which is a laser air defense system that doesn't exist yet. This is funding requests for developmental funding. How can that be an emergency?

CHAKRABARTI: Huh. So why do you think this was different this time? What do you think the reasoning was? I think, first of all, there was a natural and emotional response to what happened on October 7th. I think, as well, once that response was there, it was very difficult, particularly for senior officials, to push back on it, no matter what they felt.

Criticism of Israel is often a third rail in American politics, and certainly no less for those who have to go before the Senate or imagine a career in which they will eventually be Senate confirmed. So I think for all of those reasons, it was difficult for anyone to say no.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Josh, if I may, I actually just let it slide in the previous segment of the show. But now that I think about it, can you tell us a little bit more about this laser technology that you said that doesn't yet exist, but has been requested as an expedited arms transfer to Israel?

PAUL: Yes, not as an expedited arms transfer, but the supplemental request currently pending before Congress includes $4 billion for research and development for this system, Iron Beam which I think, I certainly do not oppose air defense systems. I think it's really important that civilians not live under threat of rocket fire.

I also think it's important that civilians not live under threat of aerial bombardment. But I don't know that an emergency supplemental is the place for that sort of request, which I think goes to this point of, this is in some ways a cynical opportunity to move things that Israel has wanted for a long time or may want for the future, and sees now as a moment where the barn doors are open, essentially.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. I appreciate your clarification on that. Because during the break, I was, my mind was a little confused. I was like, how can this possibly be? But the R&D portion of the explanation helps clarify that. Now, just for the sake of common understanding, we should establish some facts about U.S. arms sale, right?

That this country is the world's largest dealer of arms. U. S. arms exports have been growing, grew by 14% earlier in this millennium between 2012 and 2016. It's now up to 39% of the world's arms and military assistance is from the United States. Including places like Israel, as we said, Saudi Arabia, Australia, vis-a-vis the China threat, South Korea. I'm seeing here that as recently as 2021, the United States delivered major arms to 103 countries around the world.

Okay. So in addition to that, there are laws in this country, the Foreign Assistance Act, Leahy Laws, et cetera, that are intended to prevent U.S. arms sales to gross violators of human rights. Okay. So what I want to understand, Josh, is what is the normal procedure that you see having not taken place with Israel.

So first of all, can you describe to me? I'm seeing here that there's something called the Security Assistant Management Manual, and it requires things from the U.S. Embassy to prepare for in the event of arms sales.

PAUL: Yes. So that relates to the foreign military sales process. That's a Department of Defense document.

And what it requires in terms of the U. S. Embassy is for major foreign military sales, major government to government arms sales from the U. S. There is something called a country team assessment, whereas the country first comes in to request what they want, the U. S. Embassy, the various stakeholders within the U.S. Embassy will sit down and say, "Does this make sense for regional security? Can they absorb this capability? Et cetera, et cetera. And then they will provide that assessment up to the state department as the case advances. So there are multiple points in any process at which there are opportunities to chime in.

Another one is, as you mentioned, in terms of the legal requirements, the office of the legal advisor and State Department has an active role in the review of all arms transfers, whatever their origin. And then most important or most relevant perhaps is the policy piece. And the policy is shaped by something called the conventional arms transfer policy, which is a presidential level policy that has been issued by every president.

I think since Ronald Reagan. The most recent iteration was issued February of this year by President Biden, and I think is honestly the best one yet. And what I mean by that is it really follows the administration's language from the start of the administration, they would center human rights and foreign policy.

And for the first time actually has directive language that says that the transfer of arms shall not be authorized when it is more likely than not that they will either cause human rights abuses or violations or aggravate the risk of human rights violations. And this goes to your question about what's missing here.

I think there is no doubt that the provision of bombs to Israel at this time, at the very least, aggravates the risks of human rights violations. In fact, a month into this conflict, we've seen something like one in 200 Gazans die. It's an incredible figure. And yet the idea that this policy could just be set aside in this instance, as it has never been before, in my experience was, one thing that set this apart for me.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I'm going to come back to that in a moment, but I'm just fascinated to point out a couple other points in the normal process, right? Because you said earlier that the United States has a robust sort of a framework for analyzing whether or not human rights violations will occur with its arms that we send to a hundred-plus countries around the world.

And in that country team assessment that you mentioned, it must include a description of the human rights record of the proposed recipient, right? Of the arms.

PAUL: It does.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And then go ahead.

PAUL: No, I was just going to say, it does include that assessment. I think it's also important to recognize the complexity of arms transfers.

I think we think of, weapons and all weapons, are bad, but it really depends on what type of capability you're talking about what kind of units it's going to. For example, as we're talking about now in the context of Israel, if it is missile defense, that is one thing.

If it is, you gave the example of Honduras. If it is a counter narcotics maritime capability or a radar to see what is going on at sea, that is not necessarily the sort of thing we would have concerns about.

CHAKRABARTI: Got it. So then in addition, there's the end use monitoring that has to happen, in terms of how the weapons are actually being used by the recipient nation.



PAUL: End use monitoring, despite the name, actually essentially means making sure that the weapons got to where they were supposed to go and haven't been illicitly re transferred or re-engineered or reverse engineered. It does not look at how the weapons are used. So misuse is not a function in the U.S. end-use monitoring program at this point.

CHAKRABARTI: It is not? Because I'm seeing documentation here that says EUM is in place also to quote, "Ensure that recipients use such items solely for their intended purposes." But the law never defines what intended purposes are and the way the U. S. government has for generations interpreted that law, which comes from the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, is that the intended purposes are that it is not illicitly re transferred, re-engineered, reverse engineered.


PAUL: Human rights, you would think, are a purpose for which the U. S. does not provide arms, but no one has yet applied that interpretation to the law.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So this brings us back to something that you wrote in your resignation letter of October 18th, that you've made more moral compromises than you care to, or wish to remember. It's becoming more clear why that is, because even though there's this framework, there are clearly ways in which the framework is inadequate in terms of protecting human rights.

But regarding those moral compromises, can you tell us about one of them?

PAUL: I don't know that I'll get into specific discussions and internal deliberations within the department that remain protected. What I will say, though, is you named a number of countries in your introduction including Israel, but also, Saudi Arabia, Philippines.

Actually, I think you can take the example of the Philippines under the previous President there where there was a campaign of extrajudicial killing by the government against, in the context of its drug war, but reporters were killed. The opposition politicians were killed.

And yet the U.S. was still providing military assistance, security cooperation, defense articles. So figuring out, should we be doing this at all? If we should, to whom, in what context, these are all really challenging discussions and debates, and the outcome may be one that is difficult to stomach.

But to the extent that you feel like you're contributing, it's a worthwhile role to have.

CHAKRABARTI: Has there ever been an example that you've been involved with where the concern about potential human rights violation has been significant enough to stop an arms transfer? Yes, this has happened frequently.

And in fact, the very first thing the Biden administration did upon coming to office, as I recall, at about 12:20 on January 20th of Inauguration Day was to suspend, publicly, to suspend two pending arms transfers of precision guided munitions to the Saudi led coalition. And those two sales remain suspended.

CHAKRABARTI: So Saudi Arabia is a really interesting example here about, again, whether intent or policy match actuality on the ground, Josh. Because I'd like to discuss that a little further if that's okay with you, because Saudi Arabia, what, it receives nearly a quarter of U.S. arms exports, and it has for some time.

And I'm thinking about this specifically in the context of the disaster, the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, which began in 2014. Many groups still call it the largest human rights crisis in the world. More than 377,000 Yemenis killed so far. Civilians, there's massive hunger, disease. The Saudi led coalition there has carried out what, more than 25,000 air raids.

That's up to, that's a measurement up to the end of March of last year. Almost 30% of them have been identified as civilian. So again, from a little bit more of background, Saudi Arabia has purchased billions of dollars' worth of Boeing made helicopters, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin missiles, they received $355 million in large U.S. arms between 2015 and 2018.

That's according to the security assistance monitors. And yet even with all the human rights disasters happening in Yemen, via the Saudi led coalition, arms sales continue to the Saudis. I'm seeing here that since November of 2021, even with President Biden saying he wants to center human rights, the Biden administration has approved sales of missiles, aircraft, and anti-ballistic defense systems to Saudi Arabia, including 28 million for the U.S. to maintain Saudi aircraft, which may be using, in those exact bombings, on civilians in Yemen. So how is that happening?

PAUL: So two things. And before I get into the Biden administration's policy towards the Saudis, I will point out one fundamental difference here, between the Saudis and U.S. support to Israel, which is the role of Congress. And Congress has historically, and over the course of the last five, six, seven years, taken a very stern view of the human rights context in Yemen and has delayed, has objected to, has debated, has had hearings about the provision of arms to the Saudi led coalition in that context.

That is not the case when it comes to Israel, where there is a very small minority in Congress who are willing to raise their voices of the same concerns. Even though I think those concerns are probably shared widely behind closed doors. When it comes to the Biden administration's policy towards Saudi arms sales, I think yes, the relationship is very important to the U.S. and it's not one that we're going to walk away from.

I think the Biden administration has felt it necessary to show in good faith to the Saudis that we are a reliable partner. But if you look at the capabilities that are provided and you mentioned some of them. Air defense, this is reasonable, right? In the context of both the threat from Iran and the threat from the Houthi entity in Yemen, when it comes to sustainment of aircraft.

So I think this is a really complex and challenging one, right? Because those are aircraft that could be dropping bombs. Those are also aircraft that could be using missiles that we've provided to shoot down incoming drones. And that is actually something they do often or have done during the course of the conflict.

So for each of these, there really is a lot of complexity and nuance that I don't think is captured just in the headlines.

CHAKRABARTI: But here's the thing, Josh, that I know you're well aware that individual citizens wrestle with. Complexity and nuance, while important to understand and consider, is also how human rights get shunted aside.

Because, and this is why I think Yemen is such a powerful example. Because the Saudis need to defend themselves, totally understood, but the body count between Yemen and Saudi Arabia is so vastly asymmetrical that it's hard to argue that what the Saudis are doing is protecting themselves versus using U.S. supplied military arms to continue to exact, you talked about collective punishment, harsh punishment on innocent Yemeni civilians. And what I don't understand is why even as those violations are known and continue to be committed, why there hasn't just been a wholesale stop, on at least, many or some of the arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.

PAUL: Yeah, I'm not going to argue with you. And as I said, I think the first thing the Biden administration did was look at this issue and suspend two precision guided munition sales in that context. These were, as I say, always active, very active discussions, both in terms of decision making and in terms of potential legal culpability.

For the U.S. when it comes to potential for gross violations of human rights or others resulting from U.S. provided, U. S. authorized arms. All I would say on that is that I always felt that there was a strong debate, and it did lead to mitigation steps that were taken along the way. It did lead to strong debate both in Congress and in the administration.

And also, I felt, again, while I did not agree with the final outcomes in many circumstances, that there was a difference that I was making and that others in the human rights community within government were making as these sales move forward. Whether as it relates to their timing, whether as relates to their content, whether as relates to accompanying steps that we required to go along with them.

And again, it's that's missing here in the same sort of context of humanitarian catastrophe. But in this context, it's, as the vice president has said, no conditions will be attached to our assistance to Israel. We have this ironclad commitment to Israel no matter what. And that is different.

CHAKRABARTI: The no conditions part. Totally understood and point well taken. One more thing about the Saudi example though, because you're right about the president declaring or stopping a couple of transfers when he first came into office, which would be January 20, 2021. But by November, as I pointed out earlier, there was still approval of like billions of dollars of sales to Saudi Arabia.

Now you said, within that context, you and other human rights-oriented people within the State Department were able to make a difference. The sales went through. So what is your definition of the difference you were able to make?

PAUL: So there's a limited amount that I can talk about here, but there was a fair amount of work, and one of the things that is public known, for example, is that the U.S. sent an expert, a guy called Larry Lewis, who used to work in both the State Department and the Defense Department, to go work with the Saudis to understand what the problems they were having were. Quote-unquote problems. But why this was happening, and how it could be addressed.

There were various other steps. There was training that was provided. And certain other mitigations that we can't get into. That were all part of this, and it has resulted in a significant reduction over time in civilian casualties, as a result of air strikes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, we've got a minute to go before our next break.

You also said that the distinctive thing about the U.S. 's relationship with Israel, and especially recently, is the no strings attached transfer of arms. What are the kinds of strings that have been attached in other examples?

PAUL: Very briefly, it's not just in terms of the strings attached, for other countries, but there's a piece by Seth Anziska in the New York Review of Books in which he quotes a diary entry from President Reagan in 1982 during the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.

And 14 hours into that bombardment, President Reagan picked up the phone to Prime Minister Begin and said, "You need to stop. You are putting the future of our relationship with you in doubt." That is a conversation I cannot imagine happening today, and I don't understand why.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Josh, you had mentioned something a little earlier that made me wonder about what you think are the sort of the group of forces at play when it comes to approving arms transfers or military assistance anywhere, but specifically in the context of Israel, that laser technology that you had mentioned that there was an R&D request essentially hidden in an emergency appropriations request. So it's not just international geopolitical or foreign policy that's at play here.

There's also domestic politics. There's also the lobbying of the defense sector.

PAUL: Yes, that's entirely fair. And there's sort of an imbalance when you think about it, when it comes to the voices that are heard in the context of an arms transfer, right? Because, of course, the partner is pushing for it, the partner or the ally.

Typically, within the State Department, the regional bureau that relates to that or oversees that partner's relationships with the U.S. also is pushing for it. And then, of course, the company that will produce the defense article is pushing for it as well. And not only are they pushing for it, but the U. S. defense industry is spread across every one of the 435 congressional districts. There is always someone reaching out to say, "Why haven't you moved this license faster?"

Can you help my constituent get through this process, export their item? And so Congress has an active role here, as well, and fairly, right? Because we're talking about $180 billion annual export industry in terms of the state department-controlled defense articles. And that's a lot of jobs.

There are some calculations that it's as much as 4,000, 3,000 to 4,000 jobs per billion dollars' worth of exports. But of course, the people you don't hear from are the human rights community, are the civilians who might be targeted by those bombs because they don't know what's happening until the authorization is announced. If it even is announced.

CHAKRABARTI: I just wanted to make that point because this same fact that there are defense and defense contractor jobs in every congressional district in this country comes up again and again, in terms of one of the reasons behind the explanation of the ballooning of the defense budget, right? And it has a direct relationship here to then how the United States military technology is deployed around the world by other countries. It's a very bracing and complex story here. But Josh, we should get back specifically to the question of the United States and Israel, because you're asking people not just to scrutinize the current requests for arms transfers today, but you said earlier, regarding how the United States has assisted 20 years or more.

And you had mentioned that you see us arm sales over that time as having not kept Israel secure. Can you tell me more about that?

PAUL: Yes. We've seen, and I'll start more currently and go backwards, but we've seen repeated clashes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and repeated bombings of Gaza that have led to thousands of civilian casualties, not of the scale we're seeing in the last month, but certainly thousands of civilian casualties.

And it is clear that has not led to security for Israel. That approach of essentially sidelining the Palestinians and hoping that you can somehow carve off that issue and not worry about the occupation and yet advance relationships with other countries in the Middle East, as if it's not going to come back to bite you.

It's absurd, the sense that I feel like with each bomb Israel is dropping in Gaza now, it is digging itself deeper into a hole. In the sense that there'll be another generation that it cannot make peace with, that does not want peace with Israel. And when you see a friend digging themselves into a hole, you don't throw them more shovels.

You throw them a rope. And I think that's what we need to be doing. That's what needs to change here. And then of course, we're some 30 odd years almost since Oslo. That set a 10-year timeline for the creation of a Palestinian state. And yet I think we are probably further in the Palestinian condition, living condition is certainly worse now than it was 30 years ago.

So I think we in the international community, as well as Israel, as well as the PLO, all have responsibility to ask, "How on earth did we get here?" Because it is not working.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But of course, to be fair, from the Israeli perspective, continuation of conflict, though very far from ideal, of course.

But continuation of conflict is better than ceasing to exist, right? The existential threat that Israelis feel cannot be underestimated. And they would argue, especially in the Israeli government, vehemently, that the guarantee of U.S. military assistance is one of the things that's been able to allow Israel's survival, given the depth of the animosity towards the existence of the Israeli state from its surrounding neighbors.

PAUL: The animosity, depth of animosity from Israel's surrounding neighbors, I don't think is the depth of animosity that it was 40 years ago, right? Israel is now at peace with all of its, almost all of its immediate neighbors, and has strong relations with the Gulf countries.

And then of course the question of existential threat, I absolutely agree that Israel has historically faced an existential threat and should not. The same, I think, is also true, though, and we never put it that way, of the Palestinians who don't even have a state yet. So where is their also right to exist as a state and recognition of statehood?

I think you're right that the U. S. Provision of arms to Israel has played a critical role in securing and defending Israel over the years. Israel now is a modern, highly capable nation state. You were talking about the export of arms. Of course, Israel is also now a top 10 exporter of defense goods and services around the world.

That is in great part thanks to the funding the U. S. has provided, which, almost uniquely, Israel has been able to use to subsidize its own defense industry. So we've essentially, at this point, now we're subsidizing our competition. And then finally, the whole nature of the approach in the last 20 years has been the concept that if we provide Israel with this level of security with the security capabilities, then it will feel more comfortable to make the concessions necessary and take the risks, frankly, necessary to lead to a two-state solution to lead to peace with Palestinians.

And that's not what's happened. Israel has taken that security blanket and used it to push the envelope, to expand settlements, to continue the siege of Gaza to continue a collective punishment of Palestinians in both the West Bank and in Gaza.

So that again, that approach just has not been one that has led to security for Israel.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to take a moment to talk about how your career overall and your academic background and how that has contributed to your thinking about the Israel-Hamas conflict. Now, because this is, it didn't come out of a vacuum, right?

Your perception here. Can you tell us a little bit about, you've spent time in the region. Can you tell us more about that?

PAUL: Yeah, absolutely. I first, really academically spent time there when I was doing my master's degree, actually in Scotland, and had a fantastic supervisor, a guy called Paul Wilkinson, who was an expert in terrorism, counter terrorism.

And cut his teeth studying really more Northern Ireland. Was really inspiring. And under his supervision I did my master's degree thesis on counterterrorism and civil rights in Green Line Israel in Israel. And so spent some months out there living first of all with Israelis and then living with Palestinian-Israelis and really trying to understand both sides and what was going on.

I also worked in the Middle East, I did over two years in Iraq, working in 2004, so spent some time there for the U. S. government working in the security sector there. And then spent a year in Ramallah. And this was under the George W. Bush administration and then overlapping into the Obama administration.

Where there is still something called the U.S. security coordinator. Whose mission essentially is to build Palestinian security force capacity in the hope that again, this can contribute to an Israeli confidence in a peace process. So you know, I've gone back and forth to the Middle East a number of times and spending the rest of my career really in the Washington, D.C. environment, both on the Hill and the Pentagon and state. Dealing with these issues of security assistance and security sector reform and how do we relate with partners and how do we use these tools that the U.S. has to get to better foreign policy outcomes.

CHAKRABARTI: The Iraq experience you have is quite interesting to me. The years that you mentioned were pretty terrible years in Iraq, and no amount of U.S. military might made it significantly better, right? And there were temporary victories here and there, for sure.

I'm not discounting them, but overall, what did your time there, how does that inform your view on whether hundreds of billions of dollars of military assistance can help any nation truly be secure in the long run?

PAUL: That's a great question. I really think it comes down in a significant part to questions of legitimacy.

Does the government we are working with have legitimacy? Does the cause that we want our partner security forces to fight for have legitimacy. And we see this right now in Ukraine, right? Where there is a legitimate government, a clearly legitimate mission. And that has led to a massive will to fight on the part of the Ukrainian people, which is truly impressive and inspiring.

I think when it comes to Israel and Gaza, unfortunately, I feel like we are undermining the legitimacy of, for example, the Palestinian Authority and shifting that legitimacy to Hamas. And where we are seeing a will to fight on their part, I think that we have to think of our security systems and our arms transfers in that broader context.

That it is, and you can apply the same framework really to a lot of our partners who are autocrats and have autocratic regimes. I think one of the things we always, the trap we fall into is listening to what a government tells us rather than thinking about its track record and how its people may perceive it.

We can talk about Africa, where we have seen a dozen coups in the last couple of years. Many of them with individuals who have undergone U. S. training. I don't think the U. S. training is the purpose for that. But again, it's a symptom of when we provide this growth of military capability into a system or a process where there is a lack of legitimacy.

Problems follow.

CHAKRABARTI: So you're describing something that I think many Americans have seen clearly for years and you're talking about a disconnect between what policymakers see and want versus reality and what actually happens to the people who are on the receiving end of that policy, right?

I just wonder if, why do you think that disconnect persists? Because, not looking at the track record of leaders that you're working with in a country just seems to be, like, that should be the basis, the foundation of any kind of diplomatic or military cooperation between nations.

PAUL: Yeah, I think it's a really complicated question.

I think part of it is down to American culture and our short attention span. Frankly, I think part of it is down to the sheer power of the U.S. The fact that we are involved and engaged in so many different complex conflicts around the world. That anything we do in some ways has a trickle-down effect or a knock-on effect that it's hard to anticipate, because of just the complexity and reach of U.S. power.

And I think that's why it makes it really important for us to exercise that power with an incredible amount of thought and responsibility.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So that leads me to a couple of the final things that I'd love to talk with you about today, Josh. One is, after your resignation, you've been asked if you would return to government.

You said very likely not. Now that entails some loss for you, I imagine, because not being in government means you don't have your ability to have a direct say or influence on exactly the processes we've been talking about.

PAUL: Yeah, not that I wouldn't want to return to government, just that I don't think it's likely at this point.

CHAKRABARTI: But on the other hand, oftentimes people can speak more freely. Once they've exited government service. So given that, what would you change? What policy advice would you change for the United States regarding our arms sales and transfers overall, in order to avoid the kind of sort of constant moral compromise that you say is one of the things that marked your tenure at state?

PAUL: Yeah. Secretary Blinken, and I think he's right often, talks about the rules based international order being the foundation for the world that we would like to live in. I think it's important that we strengthen that rules-based international order and part of that starts at home. So strengthening U.S. legislation, for example, to close some of these gaps that we've been talking about. So that it's made clear, for example, that the purposes for which U.S. arms are provided do not include human rights violations.

I think recognizing the role of international law here as well and thinking about how there is no accountability. This is one of the big challenges, right? Is that even if there are violations under international law, international humanitarian law, that are being carried out by Israel that are being supported and sustained and facilitated by the U.S., we have at every stage blocked the access of the Palestinians to the International Criminal Court, to the International Court of Justice where they can seek justice. So really investing ourselves in that international rule of law that we so publicly talk about. And then most importantly, I think sticking to our values.

We are, again, I think the Biden administration is quite right in an era of strategic competition with adversaries whose offering to the world is essentially all the growth of capitalism with none of the complexity of democracy, none of those human rights values. I think it's an attractive offering to autocracies and to many around the world. I think our offering of human rights values, of democracy, of the rule of law is a more effective and a more attractive offering to the people of the world.

And if we are being hypocritical, if we are seen to be opposing occupation, when it is imposed by Russia, but supporting it when it is imposed by Israel, I think that undermines our argument globally. And so I think, moral consistency, I think, would be, at a strategic level, the single most important thing that we could do better.

CHAKRABARTI: Frankly, Josh this profound conversation with you has left me struggling even more to see how those human rights values are seen through to their totality within the context of international arms deals from the U. S. But in the last minute that we have, that brings me back to something you wrote in your resignation letter.

You wrote about Israeli Peace, a founder of one of the founders of the Israeli Peace movement, Uri Avnery. Did I get that right?

PAUL: Uri Avnery.


PAUL: So as I mentioned, I was out there doing my master's degree thesis and I met with him as one of the many people I met with, and I can't remember most of them, but I remember him.

I remember going to his apartment in Tel Aviv. And he was one of the founders of the Israeli Peace movement. And he told me this story about how under the British mandate he was part of the Irgun, part of one of the Israeli, or nascent Israeli resistance movements to the British.

And they huddled in a basement in 1939, and the head of their unit said, "We're now going to war and the British are going to war with the Germans, but we're going to keep bombing the British because they're our enemies, not the Nazis. The British are our enemies, and if anyone has a problem with that, get up and walk out."

And Uri Avnery got up and walked out.

This program aired on November 16, 2023.


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Paige Sutherland Producer, On Point
Paige Sutherland is a producer for On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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