‘I Just Saw the Lack of Debate’: Why Josh Paul Quit the Biden Administration Over Israel’s War

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Until this week, Josh Paul was a figure little-known beyond diplomatic and military circles. He had spent more than 11 years at the State Department as a civil servant, focusing heavily on the issue of arms transfers from the United States to other countries. He’d watched as the United States sent weapons to many troublesome regimes, but he thought his input had helped keep the system from thoughtless overreach.

The U.S. rush to arm Israel in its battle against Hamas militants proved a breaking point for Paul. The 45-year-old, an American who grew up in London and speaks with a distinctive British accent, quit his position in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. He posted a resignation letter that he said resonated with many inside the State Department. In it, he condemned the Hamas attack as a “monstrosity” but wrote that he believes the military response Israel is taking will only lead to more and greater suffering.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an issue Paul has studied academically, writing a master’s thesis on Israeli counterterrorism and civil rights, and he has also lived in the West Bank. In a conversation with POLITICO Magazine, Paul laid out why he thinks the U.S. approach to this war is wrongheaded and why Israel should pursue options beyond an invasion of the Gaza Strip. He even read some excerpts of the emails he sent to his former superiors.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Nahal Toosi: Have you received more negative or more positive responses to your resignation?

Josh Paul: Overwhelmingly more positive. I’ve been really surprised and touched by the outreach I’ve received from both colleagues, or former colleagues, I guess, across the interagency and in the legislative branch, as well as just strangers who’ve reached out. It’s been really moving.

Toosi: And what have they been saying?

Paul: What struck me the most about the outreach, particularly from colleagues, is that I didn’t expect there would be much. This issue and criticism of Israel tends to be a bit of a third rail. And I thought people would want to stay as far away from it as they can. But so many colleagues have reached out to say, “We understand where you’re coming from. We support you. We feel the same way. This is really difficult, and we’re really struggling with this, too.” And that’s been really significant. Really eye opening. And then there’s just people around the world just saying nice things, which is also encouraging.

Toosi: What was the tipping point for you these last several days? Did something specific happen? Was there a particular moment of clarity?

Paul: It wasn’t a specific moment. I’ve been watching events since the horrors of Oct. 7 and participating, of course, in the State Department and interagency discussions about how to respond, what we would do. Over that period, I just saw the lack of debate. Normally when we have controversial arms transfer decisions, those are hashed out intensively and sometimes over a period of weeks or months, or sometimes even years. There just wasn’t any space for that sort of discussion. I attempted it on a number of occasions, in emails and conversations and discussions and meetings. But there was no response, just, “OK, got it. Let’s move on. We’re doing this.”

Seeing that and recognizing that also, unlike with previous controversial arms transfers, where Congress has had a bite at the apple and has held cases or has debated cases, or has voted on cases, there also wouldn’t be a space for debate in the congressional sphere, I realized that the only opportunity to raise this issue and to press it was in the public sphere and that required me standing down.

Toosi: Weren’t you also on some pre-planned leave at the time?

Paul: I was on leave, but since Covid, leave hasn’t really meant leave. We all telework, and I was constantly on email, on the phone. There was a degree of distance, which was, I think, was quite helpful for me because it allowed me to stand back and see everything that was going on with a bit of perspective, but I was not at all left out of the discussions.

Toosi: Did you make the arguments that you lay out in your letter internally before quitting? And did you consider other methods to voice your disagreement, such as the State Department’s dissent channel? 

Paul: Yeah. As early as, I think it was the Monday after Hamas’ attacks, I sent out an email to a number of folks in leadership positions and said we need to think about this and, rather than rushing to provide security assistance, think about why this hasn’t worked in the past and what we can do differently this time. And we should not rush to provide military equipment, but we should take a more thoughtful stance.

That was met with — well, from some colleagues, offline words of agreement, but with no substantive response and everything just moved forward. And then over the course of the week, I raised the point again, on a number of calls with colleagues, including bureau leadership. I didn’t participate in a dissent channel in this instance. I find the dissent channel an important channel, but not a particularly effective one.

Toosi: When you were saying, ‘We need to be more thoughtful about this,’ what was the argument you were making as to why we need to be more thoughtful about this?

Paul: If you’ll bear with me, I’ll refresh my memory by bringing up my email. If I can quote to you?

Toosi: Yes, please.

Paul: I said, “It’s been clear for decades that the only route to that future” — that future being peace — “is not through military victory, but through diplomatic compromise, not through creating fear, but through building trust, not through killing enemies, but through making friends, not through imposing suffering, but through inspiring hope. On all these counts, what is happening now in Israel is a tragedy not only for lives it is taking and also for the future, whose possibility it is foreclosing upon for yet another generation. … In this conflict everyone loses, and the longer it lasts, the greater the losses will be.”

Toosi: This is what you were telling your superiors in your email?

Paul: Yeah.

Toosi: That’s the email you sent them?

Paul: Yes. “I know this is an unpopular opinion and too soon, but maybe the best thing for Israel right now is not security assistance in the sort of volume that makes them think they can afford to just ignore the Palestinian question and hope that, cordoned off, it will go away. Or to put it another way, if we weren’t giving them billions a year for decades, is it more or less likely they would have found it in their interest for the Oslo process to work and we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Toosi: You wrote that in an email to your bosses? 

Paul: Yeah. They’re used to it.

Toosi: You mean you’ve made these arguments before? 

Paul: Yes, and not just on Israel. On a host of controversial arms transfers with partners that are difficult.

Toosi: And their reaction this time was, “Thanks. We’re moving on.” 

Paul: Yup. Exactly.

Toosi: Could you tell me who you sent the emails to? 

Paul: I’d rather not single out individuals.

Toosi: Did the secretary of State … ? 

Paul: No. The secretary of State was not one of those.

Toosi: Over the years, you’ve helped facilitate arm sales to many regimes with poor human rights records. Why is Israel different? Is it worse than Egypt, worse than Saudi Arabia?

Paul: No. I’m not making an argument that Israel is worse than Egypt, worse than Saudi Arabia. You said I’ve facilitated many arms sales to that sort of regime. I would say I’ve hindered and delayed many arms sales to that sort of regime. The fundamental difference here is that there was no appetite, no opportunity, no space for that sort of policy discussion, which can have a difference. It can draw out the timelines, it can introduce opportunities to mitigate arms sales. There’s just none of that here. 

Toosi: But just to be clear, is Israel different from Egypt or Saudi or elsewhere? I mean, are they different in terms of how they use our weaponry?

Paul: I mean, every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. It’s a fundamentally different situation. The people the Saudis are hurting the most are the Saudis, the people the Egyptians are hurting the most are the Egyptians. The people the Israelis are hurting is not the Israelis.

It is a different situation in that regard and in many others, but I’m not going to quantify degrees of awfulness. 

Toosi: In your letter explaining your resignation, you wrote that the Biden administration’s approach has been “an impulsive reaction built on confirmation bias, political convenience, intellectual bankruptcy and bureaucratic inertia.” Can you further explain what you mean by that? 

Paul: So obviously impulsive, right, because it was a response to the horrific — make no bones about that — absolutely horrific, horrendous Hamas attack. That’s the impulsive aspect.

The confirmation bias — we always talk about Israel has a right to defend itself. And let’s provide Israel with the Iron Dome, which by the way, I entirely support. They should not have to live under rocket fire.

But we never turned it around and think about the threat to Palestinians from Israeli incursions into their villages in the West Bank on a constant basis, from bombardment from Israel against homes in Gaza, or housing demolitions in the West Bank. We always approach this problem from one perspective, and I think that’s part of the problem.

Political convenience? I think the Biden administration doesn’t want a battle with Republicans in particular, but also internal to the Democratic Party about Israel and are we pro-Israel enough and who’s the most pro-Israel?

Intellectual bankruptcy in the sense that we’ve seen for over 20 years that the commitment we made to Israel of security for peace, essentially, has not led to security or peace and in fact, leads to insecurity and makes peace further away.

Bureaucratic inertia? Well, it’s Israel. Let’s move it. Inertia in the sense that this is what we always do, so let’s keep doing it. Rather than thinking, pausing, discussing.

Toosi: What is the alternative? Stop arming Israel? You yourself denounced what Hamas did as a monstrosity of monstrosities. Wouldn’t tempering support for Israel only give Hamas and other extremists more incentive to attack again?

Paul: No. There are several aspects here. There is first of all a broader political question — this approach has not worked. Honestly, you hear Netanyahu and Israel talking about “This is going to be a military operation to destroy Hamas.” Maybe you can destroy the organization of Hamas, but you cannot destroy what Hamas is and sort of the resistance that it represents through military means. There has to be a political solution, and the military means move us further away from the political solution.

That said, Israel certainly has the capability to take out the al-Qassam Brigades and the leaders of Hamas. It has demonstrated this capability. We’ve seen various Israeli operations from the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, with the cellphone, to the poisoning in Amman of a Hamas’ leader to Israel’s response to the 1972 Olympics, where it said that it would hunt down and kill everyone who had taken part in that, and it did.

So there are options for Israel that do not involve displacing 600,000 civilians. There are options for Israel that do not involve killing thousands of civilians. I don’t know how many Palestinian civilians have to die per Israeli civilian killed, but I think there are other ways of doing this that are actually more productive for Israel’s own interests.

Toosi: You actually know a lot about this conflict. You’ve seen this issue up close, having lived in Ramallah and establishing connections with both Israelis and Palestinians. What aspect of it do you think more people need to understand?

Paul: I think most people would say the historical context, but I don’t think that’s right. I think what more people need to understand is the day-to-day experience of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, which are very different from each other but horrible in their own ways.

People need to understand that there are just a lot of innocent human beings, civilians, on both sides. In fact, the majorities of both populations just want to live in peace, just want to live their lives, raise their families.

It’s not that simple, of course. But I think people don’t grasp the day-to-day realities, and tend to only see one side of the conflict, because that’s the side that’s easy to access, that is media savvy, that is in many ways more relatable from an American perspective.

Toosi: If this does become a regional war — one that involves, say, Iran — doesn’t the United States have an obligation to militarily support its allies?

Paul: That’s a separate question, right? Now you’re not talking about security assistance in the way that I have been in terms of arms transfers. You’re talking about U.S. military involvement.

Toosi: Let’s limit it to arms transfers, because that’s what you know. Shouldn’t we be doing this because of the threat of regional war as well? This is not just a deterrent for Hamas, it’s a deterrent for Iran, etc.

Paul: Well, first of all, we’ve done that. The Biden administration has done that effectively by sending, it looks like two carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean. That sends a deterrent message to Hezbollah and to Iran.

When we talk about arms transfers what arms are we talking about? Are we talking about firearms? Are we talking about joint direct attack munitions, are we talking about small diameter bombs? Because each of those is very different sort of target sets. What units are we talking about? Are we talking about units with a track record of civilian casualties? Or are we talking about the units that have a track record of being more discriminatory? Are we talking about units that are involved in long-range strike capabilities, or are we talking about units that are involved in cross-border attacks? There’s a lot of complexity that goes into it. If that’s the question, then those need to be discussed rather than again, just saying, carte blanche, “Here’s everything you want.”

Toosi: What’s your advice to the Biden administration then about how it should move forward on this crisis? 

Paul: Specifically to the arms transfer issue, I would encourage the Biden administration to heed its own policies. They issued the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy of this administration in February, which raises the standard — to its credit — for the consideration of human rights in arms exports, including saying that we will not authorize the transfer of arms when it is more likely than not that they will be used for violations of international humanitarian law, international law and various other human rights violations. There’s a track record when it comes to Israel and Gaza, of them being used for purposes that they were not provided. And I encourage the Biden administration to hold itself to its own standard, which it does everywhere else in the world.

More broadly, there has to be a push for a political solution. There is an acute military aspect to this, but there’s not a military solution. And the displacement of hundreds of thousands, the collective punishment of the Palestinians, a sort of a tightening of the noose does not get Israel its safety, its security. We have a responsibility, as a friend of Israel, to point this out to them and to lean on them.

Toosi: You’re an American citizen who grew up in London. Does that background give you a different perspective on this issue then many of your colleagues at the State Department?

Paul: No. As I said, I’ve been surprised and really moved by how many colleagues have reached out to me and said we’re with you, and we feel the same way. There are a lot of people who do feel the same way. And they have grown up in Kansas or wherever it might be.

Toosi: What’s next for you?

Paul: Well, for now, I don’t know what the long term is. But I’ll keep advocating on this issue in the immediate term, and we’ll see what comes.

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