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Behind Kerry’s apartheid faux pas

The analogy has been used dozens of times by Israeli statesmen. Why can’t John Kerry get away with it?

May 3, 2014 12:15AM ET

Last weekend, The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin reported that Secretary of State John Kerry told a group of influential politicians and business leaders that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it does not take steps to guarantee a free Palestinian state.

Within hours of Rogin’s report, Kerry was barraged with sharp denunciations from a variety of pro-Israel organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said it was “startled and disappointed” by Kerry’s remarks; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) said Kerry’s comparison was “offensive and inappropriate.”

The initial response of the State Department was to defend Kerry’s warning, with spokeswoman Jen Psaki even going so far as to tweet links from liberal blogs ThinkProgress and Daily Kos referring to current and former Israeli leaders who made similar remarks.

But Psaki’s attempts to quell the outrage were short-lived. Within a day, Kerry put out a statement saying that he will “not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone” and that he wishes he had “chosen a different word to describe my firm belief [in] a two-state solution.” Interestingly, he reiterated Psaki’s point that a whole host of Israeli leaders have made the same warning he did but said apartheid is “a word best left out of the debate here at home.”

Therein lies the puzzle: American politicians are fearful of using the same terms that are used by their Israeli counterparts out of the caution not to offend an American pro-Israel lobby that demands more fealty to the Israeli government than Israelis have themselves.

To understand the reasons behind — and the potential implications of — this absurd double standard, it’s useful to review the fierce debate the comparison sparked in the past.

Completely unremarkable

The use of the term “apartheid” to describe either Israel or the situation in the Occupied Territories is downright commonplace. Conservative blogger David Burge, who calls the analogy “insane,” admitted as much, writing that “John Kerry’s ‘apartheid’ statement would be completely unremarkable on any U.S. college campus.” Indeed, when I was studying at the University of Georgia, the local Students for Justice in Palestine group held an Apartheid Awareness Week, a series of events designed to inform the student body about the restrictions of basic rights and liberties that Israel places on ordinary Palestinians as it expands its takeover of the West Bank with settlements.

In Washington, D.C., though, the analogy is off-limits. Policymakers, think tankers and journalists are quick to admit in private that Israel’s policy of disenfranchising Palestinians and restricting the rights of the Israeli-Arab population either already is or will soon be comparable to apartheid. But saying so on record is tantamount to career suicide.

Anywhere else in the world, comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa would probably provoke debate, but it would be far from outrageous.

I had my own run-in with this phenomenon in the summer of 2011. I was working at ThinkProgress, the popular blog of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Democratic-leaning think tank with a revolving door to Barack Obama’s administration. One of my colleagues — who while on a recent trip to the region witnessed nonviolent protesters being attacked by the Israeli military — wrote a blog post quoting CBS News’ Bob Simon, who said on a 2009 “60 Minutes” segment that without allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state, Israel was risking devolving into an authoritarian, illiberal state:

They could try ethnic cleansing, drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank. They could give the Palestinians the vote. That would be the democratic option, but it would mean the end of the Jewish state. Or they could inflict apartheid, have the minority Israelis rule the majority Palestinians. But apartheid regimes don’t have a very long life.

Anywhere else in the world, such a statement would probably provoke debate, but it would be far from outrageous. AIPAC didn’t agree. Soon after that blog post was published, AIPAC privately complained to CAP senior officials, accusing ThinkProgress of having an anti-Israel bias. AIPAC zeroed in on this piece if reporting, objecting to the use of “apartheid” — even though it appeared in a citation, not a direct statement. CAP senior officials relayed those concerns very sternly to ThinkProgress bloggers, and we were overly cautious from then on out, worried that the CAP would reinstate a ban on writing about Israel at all (which existed when the blog started up but was slowly lifted over the years). The episode served almost as an implicit warning to the CAP and ThinkProgess: Stop using this analogy or next time our complaint won’t be so polite.

They’ve lost control

While AIPAC and other components of the Israel lobby have worked hard to silence the apartheid analogy for officials in Washington, they’ve virtually lost control of the narrative outside Capitol Hill, even in Israel itself. Among those who have warned of current or future apartheid is a long string of current and former Israeli high officials.

Few would consider former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who was in power during Operation Cast Lead — of being a peacenik or leftist. Yet he foreshadowed Kerry’s warning in 2010. “The simple truth is, if there is one state, it will have to be binational or undemocratic … If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state,” he said.

In 2007 then–Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said similarly, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South Africa–style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”

And current Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni posed that dilemma in remarks made in 2013: “But the time has come for the same youth to ask to what kind of state do they want to leave the gas reserves. To a Jewish democratic Israel? Or to a binational Arab state? Or to an apartheid state? It is impossible to deal with economic issues and to ignore the important diplomatic issues related to two states for two peoples.” Despite her portrayal by many as a dove, Livni originally found her home on the political right in the Likud Party, and she was a strong supporter of Cast Lead and a critic of negotiating with Hamas.

If the Palestinians do not get enough support in the U.N., [they] may give up on a diplomatic solution … ask for citizenship and equality in Israel, and if we don’t give it to them, it would be apartheid.

Ami Ayalon

former Israeli security service chief

A former chief of the Israeli security service, Ami Ayalon, invoked the specter of apartheid in 2011, saying, “If the Palestinians do not get enough support in the U.N., [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas may quit, or the Palestinians may rise up against him, because they want a better future. They may give up on a diplomatic solution … ask for citizenship and equality in Israel, and if we don’t give it to them, it would be apartheid.”

Perhaps these Israelis were in part inspired by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who caused a mini political firestorm when he released a book warning that the treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank was approaching a South African scenario. But if anyone is qualified to determine what apartheid is and isn’t, it’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was a leader in the South African struggle against apartheid and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts to end official segregation in that country. In 1995 he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was charged both with exposing the crimes of apartheid and building harmony and trust between South Africa’s white minority and black majority.

In 2002, Tutu visited the Occupied Territories and spoke eloquently about what he saw there, including the “humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” Since he made that comparison between what happened in his country and Israel, Tutu has supported an anti-apartheid-style struggle against the occupation.

The act versus the word

Some commentators, such as foreign policy pundit Aaron David Miller, have argued that it doesn’t matter if many influential figures from around the world have agreed with the Palestinian claim that their treatment is approaching or has already reached apartheid levels of discrimination. Even if the analogy is true, they say, it’s not helpful to say it.

Yes, the apartheid analogy is divisive and brings about fierce opposition, especially among Israel’s supporters in the United States . But that’s precisely the point.

Today in the United States, there is little interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, there are passionate Palestinian solidarity activists at the local level and the influential pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill. But for most Americans, the Palestinian struggle is thousands of miles away and irrelevant to their lives.

By couching the conflict in terms that are familiar in the U.S. context — thousands of Americans took part in the anti-apartheid movement, from college campuses to city halls to the halls of Congress — we’re much more likely to get more politically engaged activists to demand an end to the occupation. While arguing over settlements or 1967 lines is technocratic and boring, most politically aware Americans know what apartheid is, and what’s more, they know it’s wrong.

That’s why AIPAC, the ADL and others have worked so hard to suppress the conversation about apartheid. They know that as soon as Israel’s current or future treatment of Palestinians is synonymous with an unacceptable evil, U.S. support will collapse. So Kerry’s decision to retract his statement is wrong. American politicians should talk more about how apartheid has been reborn in the Israeli occupation. In fact, it’s more important for them to do so than for Israeli politicians like Livni and Barak. There is some truth to the idea that Israeli moderates would be offended by such a stark comparison — but politically engaged Americans formed the brunt of the global anti-apartheid movement, and this analogy gives many, especially on the political left, a lens through which to view a conflict that may have been too confusing and esoteric before.

The good news is that despite the Israel lobby’s attempt to purge the word from the American lexicon, there’s little sign of its going away. In 2012 the centrist anti-occupation group J Street took a group of American congresswomen to the West Bank in an attempt to show them what the settlements were doing firsthand. One of the settlers they met on the trip talked about an end-game scenario in which Palestinians would stay on their land but not get any sort of national recognition or voting rights. “Some people would call that apartheid,” replied Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.

That “some” now includes a range of people from starry-eyed college activists to the leaders of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle to current ministers in the Israeli government. In private it includes Kerry and, no doubt, a countless number of his colleagues in Washington. And what’s really offensive is the act, not the word.

Zaid Jilani is a former senior reporter and blogger at ThinkProgress and a freelance journalist. He is a Syracuse University graduate student seeking his MPA.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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