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Breaking the taboo: Washington talks Israel and apartheid

May 3, 2014 at 10:14 am

Throughout the nine months of the current round of Israel-Palestine peace talks, and the torturous months of convincing both parties to return to the negotiating table that preceded it, one thing has been consistent: John Kerry’s dedication to the process. The US Secretary of State has been tireless in his efforts to kick start the long-stalled peace process and drive towards some form of agreement. The approach has alienated some officials: in January, Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon described Kerry as “obsessive and messianic”.

Now that the April deadline for a framework agreement has come and gone with no agreement, and the talks have ground to a halt, it is perhaps unsurprising that Kerry is frustrated. A measure of this frustration was seen in his comments to a closed-door meeting in Washington. Speaking to the Trilateral Commission, a non-governmental organization of experts and officials from America, western Europe, Russia and Japan, Kerry warned that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid state” if peace talks failed. He blamed both sides for the lack of progress, suggesting that a change of leadership on either side might be a good thing for the peace process, and said that failure could lead to resumed Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens.

“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state,” Kerry said. “Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two-state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to.”

A transcript of the remarks was made public by the Daily Beast website – and public outrage ensued from the Israel lobby in the US. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Kerry’s language was “startling and deeply disappointing”. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee – which supported Kerry’s peace drive – said the comments were “not helpful”. The Emergency Committee for Israel headed by neo-conservative Bill Kristol, went further: “It is time for John Kerry to step down as secretary of state, or for President Obama to fire him”.

Kerry apologized, saying: “If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word.” He said that using the word apartheid opened him up to “partisan political” attacks and that although Israeli leaders had made similar points in the past, “apartheid [is] a word best left out of the debate here at home”.

A state department spokesperson stressed that Israeli politicians like Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Ehud Barak, have all issued similar warnings. It’s a pertinent point. Back in 2010, Barak – then serving as defence minister – warned that “If this bloc of millions of ¬Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” Those are much stronger terms than those used by Kerry.

Palestinian officials pointed out that Kerry did not suggest that Israel is currently an apartheid state, merely that it runs the risk of becoming one in the future. Indeed, the sentiment is not so different to that expressed by the European Union, which recently warned that Israel would becoming increasingly isolated if changes were not made, including to settlement activity in the West Bank.

So why is the specific use of this word so controversial? It is thought to be the first time that a serving American official has used the word “apartheid” in relation to Israel’s policies in the West Bank. When former president Jimmy Carter used it for the title of his 2006 book “Palestine: Peace or Apartheid” it caused an outcry. For the most part, US officials have avoided framing the discussion about a two state solution in these terms. During the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama explicitly rejected it, saying that “injecting a term like apartheid” was unhelpful: “It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.”

Perhaps the squeamishness about using the word in an international context can be explained by the historical precedent of South Africa and the sanctions and international isolation caused by the apartheid regime. The US, as Israel’s main ally, does not want to condemn or isolate the country, and the connotations of the word apartheid are strong. As Obama said, it is “emotionally loaded”.

However, a storm whipped up over a single word detracts from the relatively uncontroversial sentiment behind the statement: that a solution must be found in order to ensure justice and dignity for everyone involved. It is notable that Kerry said he would choose a different word if he could rewind the tape, not that he would retract what he said. The injustices he referred to are real and worsening; that is true regardless of the wording.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.