Don’t mention apartheid: Why Kerry can’t say the A-word about Israel

Israeli leaders have warned for years that Israel risks South African–style isolation if it fails to end the occupation

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry got caught using the A-word behind closed doors to warn against failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he wasn’t saying anything new. By pointing out that continued sovereignty by Israel over millions of Palestinian noncitizens would cast Israel in the same light as apartheid-era South Africa, he was merely echoing a warning previously issued by two Israeli prime ministers and by the current Israeli chief negotiator. But that didn’t prevent a firestorm of criticism from supporters of Israel.

After The Daily Beast published Kerry’s comments to a meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington, D.C., a chorus of influential pro-Israel voices in the U.S., from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to outspoken Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, promptly demanded his resignation. “Any suggestion that Israel is or is at risk of becoming an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate,” AIPAC said in a statement. “The Jewish state is a shining light for freedom and opportunity in a region plagued by terror, hate and oppression.”

The outrage is hardly surprising. Use of the word “apartheid” — the system of race-based minority rule that governed South Africa until 1994 — has long been verboten for U.S. policymakers discussing Israel’s occupation of lands conquered in 1967. In a 2008 interview with The Atlantic, then–presidential candidate Barack Obama vowed never to use the word in the context of Israel. “It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe,” he said.

Kerry’s comments were made in the context of his fruitless attempts to broker an agreement toward a two-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories — the latest iteration of which collapsed late last month when Israel pulled out — in an attempt to warn Israel that continuing to occupy the territories would eventually bring repercussions. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had made the same point in 2010, warning that the international community’s passivity in the face of the status quo would not last forever.

“As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or nondemocratic,” Barak said. “If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

[The furor] suggests there’s more latitude to discuss the occupation freely in Israeli politics than in U.S. politics.

Hussein Ibish

senior fellow, American Task Force on Palestine

Neri Zilber, a journalist and visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said Kerry was merely weighing in on a debate “that has been going on for some time in Israel, where future threats to Israel’s Jewish and democratic character are a lot more openly discussed.” The response triggered by his remarks “would seem overblown,” Zilber said, “except that they came from the secretary of state.”

The furor, said Hussein Ibish of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, “suggests there’s more latitude to discuss the occupation freely in Israeli politics than in U.S. politics.”

Kerry noted that apparent double standard in what can only be described as a nonapology on Tuesday, saying that if he could “rewind the tape,” he would have chosen another word. “While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and [Ehud] Olmert have all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”

For Israel’s advocates and for supporters of the Palestinian cause, the A-word issue is less about nomenclature for purposes of political science than it is about consequences: The global consensus that formed to pressure South Africa to end the policy doesn’t accommodate indifferences or passivity in the face of apartheid; identifying a situation as apartheid is a diagnostic statement of unambiguous moral clarity that demands a remedy — if necessary, through harsh medicine. Pinning the apartheid label on Israel becomes vital to those seeking to muster international pressure on Israel for an end to the occupation; resisting the use of the term becomes just as important to those seeking to shield Israel from international opprobrium for its policies.

Even if that explains why supporters of Israel were disturbed by Kerry’s remarks, however, it doesn’t speak to why most of the outrage came from within the United States rather than from Israel or why it is that Israeli leaders have escaped reproach when saying the same thing.

One obvious reason would be that if the United States — Israel’s unwavering backer and most important ally — were to formally deem Israel an apartheid state, Washington would come under pressure to change its policy. A movement of civil society protest and international pressure eventually prompted the U.S. to impose sanctions on South Africa to end apartheid. And if the 47-year-old occupation is judged permanent, Israel might be subject to prosecution in the International Criminal Court. (The peace process, however dormant, is cited as evidence disproving the idea that the current status of Palestinians in the occupied territories is permanent.)

But, said Zilber, that threat is distant and amorphous. “I don’t think anyone’s thought that far ahead, certainly not in the U.S. We should make very clear: This came in a closed-door meeting, not in a public policy speech, and Kerry was very much pontificating about the future.”

Some critics of Israeli occupation say the controversy stems from the cognitive dissonance that many American supporters of Israel experience when their notion of Israel as a bastion of liberalism and democracy in the Middle East is confronted with the suggestion that it shares features with apartheid South Africa

“If you say ‘apartheid-era South Africa,’ that is unequivocally seen as a bad thing,” said Ibish. Israelis are fluent in the language and, to some degree, circumstances of the occupation, but Americans are 6,000 miles away. “You’re asking people to put Israel into that category — that unequivocally bad category — right away, without having fundamental knowledge of the circumstances in the occupied territories.” He is skeptical about the usage of the term for that very reason: People recoil at the imagery it evokes, which he says prevents meaningful discussion.

The intricacies of the apartheid analogy may make it of little use to either side, and it runs into problems. Such graphic illustrations of the separation principle as Israel’s security barrier and the special roads reserved for Jewish Israeli settlers in the West Bank may evoke comparisons with South Africa. This week Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that while visiting the Holy Land he saw “things that are a mirror image of the sort of things that I experienced under the apartheid” — but attempts at analogy across vast distances in history and context are inherently risky.

Israel has never annexed the West Bank — only occupied it — and the overarching goal is one of separation or expulsion rather than subordination of people denied all political rights within a single economy. The latter was the lived reality of apartheid South Africa.

“There’s a lot of leeway for Israelis to poke holes in the apartheid analogy,” said Ibish. “They point to the fact that there are Arab Israelis, to claims about how the occupation is temporary, and you end up having an argument about an analogy, which isn’t an argument worth having.”

As Gideon Levy pointed out in an op-ed for Haaretz on Thursday, the history of the conflict has been “filled with forbidden words” that served to paralyze debate; apartheid is merely the latest. But Charles Manekin, a professor of philosophy and director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center of Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, said Kerry may have taken a major if inadvertent step this week.

“Once you say it, even if there’s a backtrack, it’s there. It’s in the air,” Manekin said. Even a more genuine mea culpa from Kerry would not have negated the precedent he has set. “Another taboo breached will be another paragraph in Wikipedia about the apartheid debate in Israel.” 

And even for those who reject the comparison — and there are valid reasons to do so, Manekin said — they must then explain why. Questions about the temporary nature of Israeli occupation in the West Bank, which underpins rejection of the apartheid analogy, might be re-evaluated with the failure of more than 20 years of negotiations to end an occupation now in its fifth decade. Whether it is apartheid or not, he said, “it reminds me of waiting for the Messiah. How long can you explain to the world that this is a temporary situation? When the Israeli government seems incapable of even the most modest compromises, how long can this facade of peace talks be kept up? I think that’s what Kerry was asking.”

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