John Kerry’s dropping of apartheid 'bomb' marks end to his Mideast peace bid

John Kerry backtracked Monday from comments he made privately to diplomats Friday in which he said Israel could be headed toward apartheid if there were no two-state solution to the Mideast conflict.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool/AP/File
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement during a press conference before their talk at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Jan. 2, 2014. Tuesday, April 29, 2014, was to have been the day to seal a deal on a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Instead, it became another missed deadline in two decades of negotiating failures.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s use of the word “apartheid” to describe where Israel could be headed without the creation of a Palestinian state in the Israeli-controlled West Bank has caused a diplomatic and political firestorm that is unlikely to die out soon.

But beyond the expressions of outrage, the calls for Mr. Kerry’s resignation, the howls that the nation’s top diplomat was anything but diplomatic in using what some call the “A-bomb” – the controversy was above all an inglorious end to an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative that Kerry had poured his heart and soul into for the past nine months.

Apparently rebuked by the White House for using a term that President Obama rejected in connection with Israel as far back as 2008, Kerry took the unusual step of issuing a statement Monday evening in which he backtracked from comments he made behind closed doors to a group of diplomats and international experts last Friday.

“I do not believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one,” Kerry said. The statement was carefully constructed not to contradict the words the secretary actually used at a meeting of the Trilateral Commission.

At the Washington gathering of American, European, and Japanese diplomats and foreign-policy experts, Kerry said the “bottom line” is that a two-state solution is “the only real alternative … because a unitary state winds up being either 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’s comments were supposed to be private, but were taped by the Daily Beast website.

Some Israeli experts have long warned that any plan to absorb the West Bank and its Palestinian population into Israel would leave Israel the choice of either not being a Jewish state or not being a one-man, one-vote democracy.

As Kerry pointed out in his statement, a number of Israeli leaders have used the word “apartheid” to describe the unappealing alternative the Jewish state faced if it did not succeed with the Palestinians in creating a separate Palestinian state and instead absorbed the territories’ 1.7-million-plus inhabitants. Those leaders range from former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak to Tzipi Livni, the current government’s justice minister and Israel’s chief negotiator in Kerry’s peace drive.

But as Kerry also acknowledged in his statement, the use of such an emotion-laden and historically vivid term should be left to people from the country in question. “While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert have all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future,” Kerry said, “it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”

One reason Kerry’s use of the “A-word” caused such an uproar is that it seemed to highlight the success that critics of Israel have had in recent years in associating Israel’s treatment of West Bank Palestinians and the Arab Israeli population with the conditions and unequal status that blacks faced in apartheid South Africa. The term “Israeli apartheid” is now widespread on university campuses, and annual “Israeli apartheid” weeks are held around the world but primarily in the US, Canada, and Western Europe.

Reactions to Kerry’s comments also underscored just how inflammatory the association of “apartheid” and Israel has become.

At one end of the political spectrum, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called Kerry’s words “pernicious and extremely harmful” because they echoed and legitimized “the worst of the libelous claims against the Jewish state.” At the other end, University of Michigan history professor and Middle East blogger Juan Cole said that the “sad” aspect of Kerry’s “apartheid” comment was that he “phrased it in the future tense. That cow was out of the barn a long time ago.”

Kerry’s “apartheid” comment led to a string of calls for his resignation, starting with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who said Monday that Kerry should step down “before any further harm is done to our national security interests and to our critical alliance with the nation of Israel.”

Mr. Krauthammer seconded Cruz’s position, as did William Kristol, chairman of the Emergency Committee for Israel and a prominent Washington neo-conservative, who said, “It is time for John Kerry to step down as secretary of State, or for President Obama to fire him.”

Neither of those seems likely to happen. On Tuesday Kerry had moved on, to meetings with Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and to delivery of a speech on NATO and the European Union. Tuesday evening he was to depart on a six-day Africa trip to Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola.

But the “apartheid” uproar was one more strike against a peace initiative that Kerry last July had pledged to bring to a successful close by the end of April. Then a scaled-back plan envisioned reaching a “framework” for continuing talks through the end of the year by April 29, but even that modest goal flamed out.

Not that an optimistic Kerry has given up all hope. In his remarks last Friday, the secretary of State said it was still possible that the Obama administration could at some point present a plan for a comprehensive peace resulting in two states to the two sides.

“We have enough time to do any number of things,” Kerry said, “including the potential at some point in time that we will just put something out there. ‘Here it is, folks. This is what it looks like. Take it or leave it.’ ”

In the past Kerry has said the “window” for reaching a deal with a viable Palestinian state was closing fast, so it was not clear what he meant by “enough time.” It also remains to be seen if the “apartheid” comment ends up being one more factor that pushes the window shut.

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