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Honey, Vinegar, and Apartheid

Honey, Vinegar, and Apartheid

Ah, the frustrations of an American peacemaker. Having experienced them during my time in government, working with Arabs and Israelis during Republican and Democratic administrations through most of the 1980s and 1990s, I can relate to Secretary of State John Kerry’s growing impatience, annoyance, and perhaps even anger about how these two parties are behaving in the current peace process — Palestinians threatening to go the U.N. and cozying up to Hamas, while Israelis are creating more settlements. 

During a closed session with the Trilateral Commission last Friday, Kerry said that Israel could be in danger of becoming an apartheid state. But his recent comments — which exploded into the press early this week, and for which he issued a statement of apology on Monday night — are likely to only make his job even harder.

Kerry’s comments reflect not only his momentary frustrations but a broader pattern evident for some time now. Reading these in a broader context, these recent comments about apartheid fit into the warnings Kerry has given to both sides — usually the Israelis – of the dire consequences should they fail to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the past year or so, Kerry has prophesied about the dangers of violence, demography, and boycott. Nobody doubts the grim future awaiting the Middle East if no resolution is found, though precisely when and under which circumstances it may arrive is totally unclear and uncertain. But acting like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol really isn’t necessary; in fact it’s counterproductive. And here’s why.

First, Israelis and Palestinians can’t be scared into submission — certainly not by an American secretary of state’s warning of the future. Indeed, they probably sensed that this was just Kerry talking — if U.S. President Barack Obama starts using words like "apartheid," that would be a different story. But even then I’m not sure it would make much of as difference. They are still only words. Come 2016, both Obama and Kerry will have different jobs, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will still be around. They’ve both seen worse and aren’t going to be "Charles Dickensed" into doing anything. 

Second, honey and vinegar, as the late U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis used to say, are critical ingredients to making this peace process work. Getting miffed at the Israelis now frankly makes no sense. It will only anger both sides and make them more resistant, not more compliant. The trick to using a strong-arm approach successfully is almost always timing. There are productive fights to pick with Israel and unproductive fights. Kerry’s comments are gratuitous and serve no purpose. Indeed, picking a fight now — when the process is, for all intents and purposes, on hold — will yield no benefit whatsoever.

And third, Kerry is now in danger of being "Carterized." While the title of Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, upped sales considerably, it didn’t do much for the former president’s reputation and credibility with the Israelis. Diplomacy — like life — is about addition not subtraction. And if Kerry ever wants a chance to be an effective broker of an agreement, he must not be perceived as fundamentally biased to one side or the other. Telling the Israelis that they are in danger of becoming like a racially structured South African state does nothing except piss people off. And it’s simply wrong to boot.

Richard Goldstone, a former justice of the South African Constitutional Court who led the U.N. fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict in 2008-2009, knows a thing or two about apartheid.

As he wrote in his New York Times 2011 op-ed:

"In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute … Israeli Arabs — [who make up] 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment. …

The situation in the West Bank is more complex. But here too there is no intent to maintain ‘an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group.’ This is a critical distinction, even if Israel acts oppressively toward Palestinians there. South Africa’s enforced racial separation was intended to permanently benefit the white minority, to the detriment of other races. By contrast, Israel has agreed in concept to the existence of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, and is calling for the Palestinians to negotiate the parameters."

Granted, Goldstone was describing the situation as it existed in 2011, not speculating about the future. And who knows how bad the situation might get in the years to come. But the process won’t be facilitated by the dire warnings or lectures of a clearly and understandably frustrated secretary of state. Indeed, that Kerry has issued a statement of apology on the eve of the very day — today, April 29 — on which he had hoped to reach an agreed framework to guide negotiations toward a deal is not only the cruelest of ironies, but proof enough that the secretary of state shouldn’t have made the statement to begin with.