Hillary Clinton would never have used the word when she was US Secretary of State, because she still has presidential ambitions. John Kerry, the current Secretary of State, has no further ambitions in that direction, which may be why he dared to use the words “apartheid” and “Israel” in the same sentence. Or maybe he just didn’t realise that the world would hear about it.
Kerry spoke last week to a group of high-ranking officials from the US, Europe and Japan known as the Trilateral Commission about the failure of his year-long attempt to revive the “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinians. Somebody at the meeting secretly recorded his comments, which were published by the Daily Beast on Monday, and suddenly he was in very hot water.
What he said was that the long-sought “two-state solution” was the only real alternative to a “unitary” Israeli-ruled state that included all the territory between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea – and ruled over millions of Palestinians in the territories that have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.
Those Palestinians, most of whom cannot remember a time when they did not live under Israeli control, have no political rights within Israel. The two-state solution, under negotiation off and on for the past twenty years, would give them a state of their own, but most people had despaired some time ago of getting Israel to agree to an independent Palestine.
Kerry had not, so he was surprised and disappointed when his efforts came to naught. That was why he blurted out the truth that American politicians are never supposed to acknowledge. He said that without the two-state solution, “a unitary [Israeli] state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class [Palestinian] citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”
It was clumsily phrased, but the basic idea is common in both Israeli and Palestinian political discourse. Even if Israel never formally annexes the occupied territories, it has been building Jewish settlements all over them for decades, and the Palestinian inhabitants are effectively controlled by the Israeli government.
If this situation continues indefinitely, and the Palestinians must live out their lives as mere residents without no political rights, then they are in the same position as the black South Africans who lived all their lives under white rule without citizenship or the vote. That was the very essence of apartheid.
Alternatively, of course, Israel might grant them citizenship and the vote: that’s what happened when apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994. But there are already a great many Palestinians living under Israeli rule, and their higher birth rate would make them a majority in in that “unitary” Israel in less than a generation. That might or might not be a state where Jews were happy to live, but it would definitely no longer be a Jewish state.
State Department officials tried to defend their boss’s comments for a few hours, but as the firestorm of protest by American Zionist organisations grew the Obama administration realised that Kerry had to be forced to apologise for speaking the truth. The story that they took him down into the White House basement and beat him with rubber hoses is probably untrue, but on Tuesday he recanted his heresy.
“I do not believe,” Kerry said, “nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one.” Well, of course not. It’s not an apartheid state now because the non-citizen status of the Palestinians for the past 47 years is technically only temporary, pending the creation of their own state.
And Israel has no intention of ever meeting the technical definition of an apartheid state, either, because that would be a public-relations disaster. However, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems convinced that he can avoid that outcome simply by hanging on to the occupied territories indefinitely but never formally annexing them, and many Israelis agree with him.
They might even be right, but John Kerry doesn’t think so. Or at least, he didn’t until his own people worked him over a bit.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.