Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state” if there’s no two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a closed-door meeting Friday with influential world leaders. It is rare for senior U.S. officials to use the term “apartheid” in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“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 told the roomful of senior officials and experts from the U.S., Western Europe, Russia and Japan.
“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.”
A recording of Kerry’s remarks to the Trilateral Commission was obtained by The Daily Beast Sunday.
While pro-Israel groups are fuming at the comparison, pro-Palestinian organizations allege that Israel already is an apartheid state.
“I think we’re already there and have been for a long time … The reality is that between the river and the sea, there is one state and Israel controls it.” Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the D.C.-based think tank the Jerusalem Fund and its affiliated Palestine Center, told Al Jazeera.
“Palestinians are under Israeli state control, with no right to vote in the government that controls them. That’s what apartheid is.”
Apartheid is defined in the 1988 Rome Statute as “inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
Other examples often cited by rights groups to prove there are elements of apartheid in Israel include the Jewish-only roads in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise about one-fifth of the population, are not allowed to participate in military service, which is mandatory for most other Jewish citizens. Human Rights Watch, among others, has highlighted segregated and unequal education and services for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
But Israeli experts vehemently disagreed with the comparison.
Such comparisons are “unfair and inaccurate,” said Richard Goldstone, a former justice of the South African Constitutional Court who led the United Nations fact-finding mission on the 2008–09 war on Gaza.
“The use of the word ‘apartheid’ is not helpful at all. It takes the discussion to an entirely different dimension,” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, told The Daily Beast.
Munayyer agreed that the loaded term takes the discussion elsewhere, not in the way that Kerry, a supporter of the two-state solution, would appreciate. Munayyer said what pro-Israel groups fear about the term is that it raises the specter of apartheid-era South Africa and the manner in which the country resolved the issue — with one state.
Kerry has warned that the idea of a two-state solution is not “evergreen” and that at some point, after decades of failed peace negotiations, the option will no longer be viable.
Moving the discussion to a one-state solution would change the structure and substance of negotiations.
“For the past 20 years, the negotiations have been about borders, settlements, resources in the West Bank and how they’re going to be divided between two states. The core issues will change once you’re talking about one state,” Munayyer told Al Jazeera.
Instead of division of resources and border security, the discussion would focus on civil rights — specifically, those of Palestinians living in Israel and under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said.
Munayyer said that many in Israel would not welcome a one-state solution.
“When one group is privileged by a certain system, like Israeli Jews, Southern whites or white South Africans, they’re not willing to let the system go easily. They’re going to fight to keep that privilege,” he said.
A one-state solution is contentious in Israel because, by absorbing Palestinians into Israel, some opponents of the one-state solution say, it would become nearly impossible for Israel to remain democratic and maintain its Jewish character.
A statement from the State Department said Kerry’s remarks reiterated why it is difficult for Israel to accept the idea of a one-state solution. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not dispute Kerry’s use of “apartheid.”
“Secretary Kerry, like Justice Minister [Tzipi] Livni and previous Israeli Prime Ministers [Ehud] Olmert and[Ehud] Barak, was reiterating why there’s no such thing as a one-state solution if you believe, as he does, in the principle of a Jewish state.”
“The only way to have two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two-state solution. And without a two-state solution, the level of prosperity and security the Israeli and Palestinian people deserve isn’t possible,” she said.
Kerry also warned at the meeting that if the latest round of peace talks fails, it could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israel and its citizens.
Munayyer dismissed the threats, adding that Kerry shouldn’t attempt to browbeat Israel into continuing negotiations by warning of Palestinian violence.
“Washington should say, ‘You need to get out of the West Bank because you have to. Your presence there is not legal. The settlements are not legal, and it’s high time the Palestinian people are afforded basic rights,’” Munayyer said.