Apartheid or Not, Kerry’s Warning Was Clear

Kerry’s 'apartheid affair’ shows yet again how the political and media noisemakers fixate on a subsidiary issue and the impotent peace camp can’t shift the focus back to substance.

David Landau
David Landau
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a news conference at the U.S. Ambassador to France's residence in Paris March 30, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a news conference at the U.S. Ambassador to France's residence in Paris March 30, 2014. Credit: AFP
David Landau
David Landau

John Kerry must think we're raving mad. One minute he is adulated as the heroic peace-seeker, indefatigable in his efforts to bring tranquility and prosperity to the Holy Land, indubitably committed to the survival and security of the Jewish state. Next minute, the same man with the helmet haircut is vilified by Israeli ministers and newspapers as a suspect anti-Semite.

Why? Because he actually managed to bring the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations far along towards a successful conclusion. That conclusion would have involved some Israeli territorial withdrawals. According to those same politicians and pundits, anti-Semites want withdrawals. But clearly many Israelis, and many of Israel's friends abroad, have been asserting for years that the only way to peace is through Israeli concessions of land in the occupied areas.

By the same token, many of those same Israelis and Israel-lovers have warned for years that failure to achieve the two-state solution will inexorably leave Israel a discriminatory society, unable to apply to itself the two fundamental criteria which Aharon Barak, as chief justice, guided into legislation: Jewish and democratic.

Often, this warning has invoked the former South African system of apartheid to illustrate in concrete terms the character of a society in which the more powerful race (the whites, the Jews) relates with armed antipathy to the weaker race after decades of armed confrontation.

This resort to apartheid infuriates the majority of Israelis and Israel-lovers, including those in the peace camp, and one can readily understand why. Apartheid was based on racism; Israeli Jews are not racist. They may occupy, persecute and discriminate Palestinians, but they act out of misguided patriotism and a hundred years of bloody conflict. Not out of racism.

Granted, for the victims of occupation and discrimination it scarcely matters what the motive is of their oppressors. But the oppressors believe it can make all the difference in terms of international perception of their country. A great shout of anger always goes up from Jerusalem and New York when the specious comparison to apartheid is used by critics of Israeli government policy. Secretary Kerry knew all that, but he just forgot it for a moment, as his statement of regret made clear. Too bad – for the Israeli and pro-Israeli right he is an anti-Semite again. His roller-coaster mission has streaked downwards to a new nadir.

The apartheid ‘affair’ is so sad. The Israeli peace camp has been waiting and praying for years for friendly states, especially the U.S., to adopt its basic logic – that without the two-state solution Israelis would become undemocratic persecutors. It is sad that the peace camp feels, probably rightly, that it cannot win in the Knesset or at the ballot box but needs foreign support to persuade the Israeli public of the good sense of its positions.

But saddest of all is that having got the American secretary of state, no less, to adopt its positions and to warn direly of Israel's undemocratic future as a unitary Jewish-Arab state, the effect of that achievement may be lost by the government's and right wing's success in turning the debate from politics to philology. Parsing the words apartheid, racism and discrimination has television talking-heads arguing with all their spite and cynicism. As though the key issue of the conflict was the meaning of apartheid or other words. As though the world (including Israel) did not understand correctly what Kerry was warning, outspokenly at last.

Time and again the same thing happens. The focus of negotiations shifts to a subsidiary "issue" and the peace camp proves impotent in shifting it back. One need only remember the prime minister's recent injection of the artificial "Jewish state/homeland of the Jews" non-issue into the negotiations. By this stratagem he successfully whipped up domestic opinion against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian negotiators.

Stand by, then, for a protracted but hollow fight over the validity of the comparison to apartheid, with Israeli and American Jewish anti-two staters vigorously demonstrating their mastery of philology.

As though that were the key to Israel's survival.

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