Putting Kerry’s Comments into Context

John Kerry’s use of the a-word (“apartheid”) to warn what Israel might become if a peace agreement establishing two states is not implemented soon has, unsurprisingly, ignited a firestorm from Israeli politicians (though, interestingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has remained quiet) and several American Jewish organizations.

It’s true that this kind of rhetoric really only serves to stoke the flames of intransigence and anger at a delicate moment in the effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. (I actually think the under-reported story here is the diminished ability of leaders to talk openly amongst themselves.) But while I share Kerry’s concerns for the future of Israel, I’m not sure that the argument that Israeli leaders have used the same term to issue similar warnings of what will happen without peace is as strong as it first appears.

It’s to be expected that citizens of one country can say things about their state that is more problematic coming from the leaders of a close ally. It’s considered bad form, particularly when it’s such a sensitive issue and a loaded term—and even more when it’s said to third parties.

This isn’t unique to Israel: Canadians are sometimes very belligerent about Quebec separatism, but Washington doesn’t say much at all about the issue except to support the national government’s position. Similarly, the White House has largely remained silent regarding the Turkish government’s suppression of Turks’ individual and political freedoms. While the West Bank isn’t part of sovereign Israel, and therefore falls into the category of foreign affairs, it’s still closely tied to Jerusalem’s domestic politics.

Having said that, some of the criticism of Kerry—for example, that he should resign, that he’s not “pro-Israel” (whatever that means)—is over the top. The big takeaway here, I think, is that the taboo in the United States of using apartheid to describe a future Israel that maintains legal, political, and military control over the West Bank has been broken. Israelis long ago got over that taboo (which isn’t to say they like the term), but it’s natural that it took time to break down here. Kerry’s comment might just be—for good or bad—the beginning of a new conversation on Israel in Washington.

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