Why Kerry's 'Apartheid' Remark Stirred Up Real Fears About Israel's Future

Over the weekend, The Daily Beast reported that Secretary of State John Kerry told the Trilateral Commission in a closed-door meeting that without a two-state solution, Israel was at risk of becoming an "apartheid" state.

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Over the weekend, The Daily Beast reported that Secretary of State John Kerry told the Trilateral Commission in a closed-door meeting that without a two-state solution, Israel was at risk of becoming an "apartheid" state. Kerry later denied using the word in the manner suggested (more on that later,) but the very suggestion that he had raised an idea that is verboten in public conversations about the state of Middle East peace, provoked a strong reaction among those concerned with the region. That might be a good thing. 

Citing a recording of the meeting, The Daily Beast quoted Kerry as using the loaded term to explain why he believes an independent Palestinian state must be established: 

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. 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.

The statement raised some eyebrows, especially of those already critical of Kerry:

Zionist groups were quick to react to the report. On Monday, the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC issued a statement saying that "any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate. Israel is the lone stable democracy in the Middle East, and protects the rights of minorities regardless of ethnicity of religion."

Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman also expressed his dismay, saying:

It is startling and deeply disappointing that a diplomat so knowledgeable and experienced about democratic Israel chose to use such an inaccurate and incendiary term ... Even if he used the repugnant language of Israel's adversaries and accusers to express concern for Israel's future, it was undiplomatic, unwise and unfair. 

Apartheid rightly recalls a horrific system of oppression which causes a society to disintegrate from within, and so each groups' defensive reaction is understandable. The word is often used against Israel by those who do not even believe in its right to exist as a Jewish entity. But by taking issue with the phrasing, AIPAC and the ADL deny the very real concerns Kerry raises — and the fact that the word carries weight in this context.

Later on Monday, Kerry was adamant in saying that he never said that Israel is currently an apartheid state or that "it intends to become one." Instead, he was expressing concern that failure to create a two-state solution could set the country on that path. (In a statement, Kerry said "If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word.") The two-state solution is one that most center and left-leaning leaders, within Israel and without, see as the only viable way to achieve peace. According to left-leaning J Street, an organization that describes itself as a "political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans," a one-state solution would lead to a "profoundly undemocratic state." Per the J Street website: 

There is no such thing as a “one-state solution,” only a “one-state nightmare.” Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have given up on their national aspirations. They will both continue laying claim to the same piece of land, condemning them to unending conflict. Without a two-state solution, Israel will soon be forced either to cede its Jewish character to an Arab majority or to invite the world’s unprecedented condemnation and isolation as a profoundly undemocratic state.

It stands to reason that a single, democratic Israeli state is an unreasonable way to bring peace to the region. For the state to remain a democracy, newly assimilated Palestinians would need representation in the Knesset and an equal vote. If the non-Jewish Arab population overtakes the Israeli Jewish one, as it is likely to do, it would be reasonable to assume that Israel's identity as a Jewish state would be at risk. Basically, this means a single-state would either have to give up its status as a democratic country or as a Jewish one. That's what Kerry was warning about.

And, as The Daily Beast notes, Kerry's not the first to use the word as a means to highlight the frightening possibility of a non-democratic Israel. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak used the word in a call for peace in 2010, and current politicians shy away from the word but not its significance:

Kerry's remarks come on the heels of controversial unity pact between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers an end to Fatah's commitment to peace talks. But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that this is not the case. As Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, Abbas made a conciliatory statement that could be seen as a challenge to the Hamas leaders' belief that the Holocaust didn't happenPalestinian news outlet WAFA reports: 

President Abbas stressed that the Holocaust is a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against. 'The world must do its utmost to fight racism and injustice in order to bring justice and equality to oppressed people wherever they are.  The Palestinian people, who suffer from injustice, oppression and denied freedom and peace, are the first to demand to lift the injustice and racism that befell other peoples subjected to such crimes." 

Abbas has himself been accused of being a Holocaust revisionist — he wrote a dissertation in the 1980s positing that Zionists were in cahoots with Nazis — and some have argued that the conciliatory words don't signify any real change in Palestinian politics. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the statement a publicity stunt, and noted on Twitter that Abbas's words don't alter Hamas's stance:

And called again for the rival Palestinian factions to call off their unity pact.

Even if Abbas hasn't changed his views, it doesn't mean that the Palestinian people aren't hearing what he's saying. Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem issued a statement demanding that Abbas's words lead to change in how the Holocaust is taught and discussed in the Arab world:

Holocaust denial and revisionism are sadly prevalent in the Arab world, including among Palestinians. Thus, the statement that the ‘Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era,’ coming from Abbas, might signal a change, and we expect it will be reflected in PA websites, curricula and discourse. Acknowledging the crimes of the Holocaust is fundamental to anyone who wants to confront history honestly. 

Honesty is a rare commodity in the Arab-Israeli peace process. It's easy to interpret Kerry's words as an accusation and Abbas's as a deflection. But if each side allows that the other may be sincerely seeking a peaceful resolution — as it must, at some point, for the peace process to move forward — then this battle over words might not be the worst way to start.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.