Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel with an extensive record of strong criticism of the Israeli government and its supporters in the United States, said that he had consulted with the Bernie Sanders campaign and “spoken directly” to the Democratic presidential candidate.
Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002-2005 and was a high-profile critic of Bush administration policies, particularly the invasion of Iraq, has been under scrutiny for remarks in which he speculated that Israel might have been behind chemical attacks in Syria.
Sanders, despite his long record in Washington, has kept his statements on foreign policy at a minimum, focusing on domestic issues instead. As a result, his choice of foreign policy advisers - particularly when it come to the Middle East - has been examined closely for clues of what a State Department in a Sanders administration might look like.
A recent article in Tablet Magazine put supporters of Israel on edge after it quoted Wilkerson suggesting in the past that chemical attacks attributed to Syrian leader Assad in 2013 might have been the work of the Israeli military.
“This could’ve been an Israeli false flag operation, it could’ve been an opposition in Syria,” he said. “Or it could’ve been an actual use by Bashar Assad.”
Wilkerson responded to the charge in the New York Times, denying that he had pointed an accusing finger at Israel. “I was just suggesting all the different people that could have been involved at a time when speculation was rampant.”
But in his post-State Department career, Wilkerson has not only speculated about Israel but spoken out sharply against its policies and the activities of its U.S. lobby.
In a 2013 video interview with an independent outlet called TheRealNews.com, he said: “Israel has an enormous impact on U.S. foreign policy, but it's beginning to be so detrimental to U.S. foreign and security policy that people like (Senators) John McCain and Lindsey Graham, with their hands out to the Jewish lobby for more donations to their PACs and so forth, just simply need to shut up and go back into the dark shadows from whence they emerged.”
In a wide-ranging interview with another far-left outlet, Mint Press, on the eve of Israeli elections last March, Wilkerson said that Netanyahu had caused “unprecedented” damage to Israel, which he described as “the most predatory capitalist state in the eastern Mediterranean.”
“Fifty-one percent of the [Israeli] land belongs to the security complex, either outright or leased,” Wilkerson said. “Sixty families in Israel own about 75 percent of the wealth, which is unbelievable.” He went on: “[The United States], China, and Russia have exemplified predatory capitalism in the last 20 years, but Israel outstrips us all.”
Calling Israel a strategic liability for the United States, Wilkerson stated in the interview that if the country supports Israel as it has, “it is impossible to say you have a sound strategic approach to the region.”
Regarding the elections that were then impending, he said, “The only positive thing I can see right now is the potential for Bibi Netanyahu to lose.”
In Israel, Wilkerson is remembered for a letter he wrote in 2004 to the family of Rachel Corrie, an American student activist in the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement who was crushed to death a year earlier in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli military bulldozer while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes. The military claimed it was an accident.
The text of Wilkerson’s letter subsequently became the cornerstone of U.S. policy regarding the case.
Dissatisfied with the findings of the Israeli military investigation of the incident, Corrie’s family pursued legal redress in Israel, with the explicit support of the U.S. government, as expressed in Wilkerson’s letter. Wilkerson encouraged their lawsuit, they said. They had asked whether the U.S. government believed the report “reflected an investigation that was ‘thorough, credible and transparent.’”
His response: “I can answer your question without equivocation. No, we do not consider it so.”
That position was reiterated in a statement by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on June 30, 2010. “We continue to stress to the government of Israel at the highest levels, to continue a thorough, transparent and credible investigation of the circumstances concerning [Corrie’s] death,” he said.
In May 2011, when the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, was questioned by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee before his appointment, he repeated the administration’s position regarding the Israeli investigation, echoing Wilkerson's letter.
“For seven years, we have pressed the government of Israel at the highest levels to conduct a thorough, transparent and credible investigation of the circumstances of her death,” Shapiro said.
The Corrie family filed a civil suit against the Israeli government in 2005, accusing it of being responsible for Corrie’s death and for not conducting a full, reliable investigation. In 2012, the Haifa District Court ruled against the Corries, rejecting the charge that Israel was at fault over Rachel’s death. In February, 2015, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld that decision.