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John Kerry’s ‘apartheid’ flap: wrong word, right issue

After investing so much time and energy in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, John Kerry has every right to be frustrated. Not only have the talks collapsed. Not only are both sides digging in and deliberately antagonizing each other. But on top of all of that, he’s facing a firestorm of criticism for using the “a-word” — apartheid — during a recent dinner with senior foreign officials.

During remarks about why he believes that the two-state solution is the only solution, Kerry told a closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission: “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.”

Since the secretly tape-recorded speech was given to The Daily Beast, Kerry has faced a barrage of criticism, including from Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who demanded Kerry’s resignation. Such reactions are extreme. Clumsy as Kerry’s statement was, he was merely echoing a sentiment that many in Israel have espoused. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have all warned that the failure to create a Palestinian state will leave Israel with a painful choice: to give Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza voting rights, thereby threatening Israel’s Jewish majority, or to deny Palestinians voting rights forever, thereby threatening Israel’s status as a democracy.

This fact is not in dispute. Indeed, no one has wrestled more with this conundrum than Israeli leaders themselves, who are divided about which outcome Israel should pursue. Some prefer to annex the West Bank and deny Palestinians voting rights. Others advocate a “one state” solution that gives Palestinians citizenship and accepts the erosion of Israel’s Jewish character. A third group advocates creating a Palestinian state to solve the problem. Divisions in Israel over which path to pursue played no small role in the failure of this round of talks.


This conundrum that Israel faces is widely discussed in foreign policy circles and in Israel itself. Kerry saw no harm in repeating it, but he should have realized that using the term “apartheid” would set off furious reactions. Now, he is facing the same kind of onslaught that hit former president Jimmy Carter after he published “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Few Americans have done more to bolster Israel’s security than Carter, who brokered a historic peace between Israel and Egypt. Yet, because of a word in a book title, even he was decried in many quarters as an opponent of the Jewish state.


Kerry sensibly issued a statement saying the word was better “left out of the debate here at home.” He’s right. The a-word, a reference to the former white-supremacist regime in South Africa, understandably offends many in Israel. It gives the mistaken impression that Arab Israeli citizens, who make up some 25 percent of the population living within Israel’s borders, do not have voting rights. The term also downplays the fact that very real security threats provided the initial justification for the barriers separating Palestinians living in the West Bank.

But the best reason to avoid the “a-word” is that it is sure to distract from the real issue at hand: how to ensure equal rights, safety, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. That is the challenge Kerry bravely attempted to take on. And that must remain the focus of serious people in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and Washington.