Kerry's 'Apartheid' Gambit a Bigger Deal in U.S. Than in Israel

U.S. State Department

On Monday morning, "Apartheid" was the first word in the headline of the editorial at the top of page 2 in Israel's Ha'aretz daily. The newspaper's editorial page is an old-fashioned grey mass of type, the print equivalent of the low monotonous growl of an aging foreign policy commentator on public radio. But Ha'aretz wasn't growling about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's leaked warning, published late Sunday night, that unless Israel reaches a two-state agreement, it risks becoming "an apartheid state."

Rather, the editorial was about the planning bodies that allow Israeli settlement construction and block Palestinian building in Area C, the part of the West Bank where Israel rather than the Palestinian Authority runs day-to-day affairs. The paper urged Israel's Supreme Court to rule against the discrimination.

From this we learn two things: First, intentionally or not, whoever leaked Kerry's comments to a meeting of the Trilateral Commission on Friday did so with timing that guaranteed a muted coverage in Israel. Saturday night on the American East Coast was Sunday morning in Israel. The day's ink-on-paper newspapers were already printed and lying on doorsteps. And since Monday was Israel's memorial day for the Holocaust, the up-to-the-second media, online and on the air, were devoted entirely to painful memories and the political uses or misuses of them.  On talk radio, talk about Kerry would have to wait.

The second lesson is that "apartheid" is a strong but not shocking word within Israel's own political conversation. Ha'aretz used it to describe the existing situation in the West Bank. For years, centrist Israeli politicians have warned that Israel as a whole will become an apartheid state, or will be perceived as one by erstwhile allies, if it tries to rule the West Bank permanently.

Arguably, the word "apartheid" is a rhetorical distraction. Every unhappy country, as Tolstoy could have said, is unhappy in its own way. "Apartheid" was a particular set of racist policies in the old South Africa. Arguments about whether there is apartheid in Israel now, or will be if the last hopes of ending the occupation die, sometime sound like an argument about whether a lion is or isn't a wolf: One side cites what the two beasts have in common, the other points out what's different, and somehow the beast itself is ignored. The occupation is unjust, indefensible and doomed on its own terms. It doesn't need to be "apartheid."

But the history of high-level, internal Israeli warnings is essential for putting Kerry's comment in context. "A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative," Kerry told the assembled foreign-policy gurus of the Trilateral Commission, "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."

OK, the secretary could clean up his syntax, but the message was clear. Here's a partial history, working back, of similar admonitions by serving members of Israeli governments:

  •  Justice Minister Tzipi Livni dashed off a response this January on her Facebook page to cabinet colleague Naftali Bennett's proposal that Israel launch an international ad campaign to fight boycott threats. Livni is the chief advocate within the cabinet of a two-state agreement. Bennett believes Israeli shouldn't give up an inch of the West Bank. Livni (Hebrew here) sarcastically suggested truthful ad slogans that Bennett could use to justify his policies, such as, "This isn't South Africa—here the Palestinians aren't second-class citizens, they just aren't citizens at all."
  • Ehud Barak, then the defense minister, explained at the annual Herzliya policy conference in 2010  what would happen if the whole land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean remained one political entity: "If… millions of Palestinians vote it will be a binational state, even we call it something else. And if they don't vote, it will be an apartheid state in every respect…" (Hebrew excerpt here.)
  • In December 2003, then-Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave an interview to columnist Nahum Barnea in the mass circulation Yediot Aharonot that made readers keep checking if they'd read the interviewee's name correctly. Olmert was a second-generation politician, a blueblood of the intransigent right, and No. 2 in a Likud government. Now he declared that Israel had to give up most of the West Bank - before Palestinians stopped demanding independence and began demanding the right to vote in Israel. He added, "I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us." OK, so he didn't quite say that Israel was the same as the old South Africa. He just said that those liberal Jews abroad would think so - a neat way to put the critique in someone else's mouth.
  • Let's skip back a bit: In 1972, the central committee of the then-ruling Labor party held a long debate on the future of the occupied territories. Attacking Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who thought Palestinians would accept "benevolent occupation" forever, Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir said it didn't matter whether Israel annexed the West Bank formally or did so de facto. Either way, denying the Palestinians living there the full rights of citizens would put Israel in a class with "countries whose names I don't even want to say in the same breath." Maybe he didn't have South Africa in mind. At the time, he could have meant Rhodesia.
  • On June 19, 1967, a week after the Six-Day War, the Israeli cabinet held its first of many inconclusive discussions of the West Bank's future. Dayan proposed that Israel keep the territory and grant the Palestinians local autonomy without the right to vote in Israel. (If this sounds remarkably like the situation since the 1993 Oslo Accord, which created the autonomous Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, it's no coincidence: Oslo was designed by Dayan's foremost disciple, Shimon Peres). Justice Minister Yaakov Shimshon Shapira ripped into Dayan's idea. "In an age of decolonialization around the world… who's going to accept that?" Shapira demanded. "Every progressive person will rise against us and say,  '…they want to turn the West Bank… into a colony.'"

If you feel the need to import terminology to describe Israel and the occupied territories in 2014, it's more accurate to use Shapira's "colony" for the West Bank than "apartheid" for everything between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Israel rules the West Bank as a separate territorial entity, where Palestinians lack citizenship basic rights and settlers enjoy privileges that they would not have within sovereign Israel.

No matter. Kerry's comment didn't sound radical in Israel. But back in America, where the usual suspects lined up to attack him, it was condemned as incendiary. The lobbying group AIPAC declared that "any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate"; the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman said Kerry's use of the word was "inaccurate and incendiary," and American Jewish Committee director David Harris claimed that Kerry was borrowing from "the Palestinian playbook" by suggesting that "Israel had to confront notions of the Jewishness of the state."

One has to ask: Does anyone in the offices of these "pro-Israel" organizations follow Israeli political debate, or read Israeli history? But the outcry worked, a bit. Kerry issued a mildly surreal statement that he'd goofed in saying "apartheid" even though he believed his warning was correct.

We’ll probably never know who leaked Kerry's words. A good leaker, like a good spy, glories in anonymity. We can assume, however, that the secretary expected his comments to go public, and probably sooner, so they would catch the Israeli news cycle at a better time. You don't speak before a large "closed" meeting in the era of smartphones, tablets and recording apps and expect anything else.

The apartheid comment was only part of the secretary of state's case for not allowing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process die, and was a prelude to a more personal message: If the two sides don't negotiate, he may confront them with a full U.S.-written plan for an agreement and tell them, "Here it is folks. This is what it looks like. Take it or leave it."  He wanted to focus minds in Jerusalem, and to do so more successfully than Israeli politicians who have issued similar warnings virtually from the moment occupation began.

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