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What Kerry’s ‘Apartheid’ Remark Says About the Logic of Obama’s Diplomacy

What Kerry’s ‘Apartheid’ Remark Says About the Logic of Obama’s Diplomacy

Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comments that Israel will become an apartheid state if it doesn’t come to agreement with the Palestinians didn’t kill his quest for a peace deal: it was practically dead already. But the comments certainly didn’t help, and they underscore a significant reason why his effort was all but doomed from the start, and why it remains unlikely to be fulfilled by this or any administration in the foreseeable future. Now that the dust has settled a bit and the talks are on hold, it is worth considering what Kerry said, where he said it and finally, what this means for the administration’s policy in the final three years of Obama’s presidency.

According to Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast, Kerry told senior officials from leading Western states, Russia, and Japan,

A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens-or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state. Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two-state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to.

What Kerry said is what former President Jimmy Carter argued in his 2007 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Carter later clarified that he was not accusing Israel proper of desiring or building a racist apartheid system but that Israeli policies were like apartheid. Personally, I never saw the difference between this clarification and what Carter’s book said. Given that a formal definition of apartheid is readily available to anyone who cares to consult U.N. documents or the writings of international law experts, one is justified in wondering what the motive is for saying such an unwarranted thing about an ally.

But there is a diplomatic logic at work here that both Carter and Kerry (and of course Kerry’s boss, the president) are using: If a two-state solution is not implemented, then Israel will doom itself to destruction (the "end of the Jewish state" outcome) or its soul to perdition (the "Apartheid Israel" outcome.)

Taking this logic along with the overall tenor of the Obama administration’s policy, we are to understand that Israel bears the burden. It is the Israelis that have to make all the concessions to make the two-state solution work and obviously in Kerry’s mind they are not making enough concessions. Relations between the Obama administration and the Israelis have been fraught with tension and recrimination. But more importantly, the emphasis of the administration’s statements and its actions reveal a bias against Israel’s claims and actions in favor of the Palestinians. This attitude is revealed especially when it comes to comparing U.S. reaction to Israel’s settlement construction activity vs. Palestinian lack of effort against terrorism and corruption.

This is the logic that George W. Bush’s administration avoided: The two-state solution in that administration was predicated on the Palestinians building a peaceful and democratic state, one characterized by combatting terrorism and the rule of law. At every turn Bush made it clear that the key to a two-state solution was that the Palestinians build the right state. The burden that the Israelis embraced was to turn over control of territory to this reformed Palestinian state and Israel actually pledged to help the Palestinians build it.

But the Obama administration’s actions reveal that it apparently doesn’t see the matter this way. The administration’s rhetoric and actions convey the idea that the Palestinians are victims, that we can’t expect them to build a peaceful and democratic state so they are not pushed on that. An example of the president’s rhetoric and policy is his remarks in March of last year while touring the region. The lack of emphasis on the need for the Palestinian Authority to build a decent government and state is telling.

And now to where Kerry made his remarks and to whom. The meeting of the Trilateral Commission was a private, off the record affair. When leaders speak to their peers and colleagues in such settings, one assumes that they are saying exactly what they want to say. Just ask Mitt Romney.

It matters little if Kerry did not mean the statement to be made public, just as it mattered little if Romney did not mean his "47 percent" comments to be made public. Both men made statements of lasting consequence that have been interpreted as revelations of their true thinking.

Kerry might have bolstered the general view of most world leaders that the Trilateral Commission represents, but he did nothing to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians. All he did was continue to encourage a one-sided view of the conflict that will never succeed since nation-states aren’t shamed or argued into neglecting their security interests.

What does this mean for the remaining years of the Obama administration as it seeks a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, as all administrations seek as though it were a holy grail? A lot. It is hard to imagine an improvement in the prospects for a deal when the administration refuses to hold the Palestinians accountable to the only thing that can make a deal acceptable to Israel and make such a deal last. And it adds insult to injury. After all, the administration has suggested that Israeli leaders are, at the very least, either comfortable with apartheid status or too dumb to avoid it. And since Israel is a democracy, its public opinion matters greatly. Many Israelis are seriously offended at what Kerry revealed about Obama’s policy towards them and the government they elected (and on Holocaust remembrance day in Israel, no less). The bitterness will be lasting. They are very likely to harden their support for the current leadership and its understanding of Israel’s security needs.

Whatever the motivation Kerry had for making these remarks, they reveal what he and the president think about Israel and the peace process generally. It has now become much harder for Israel to trust an ally that thinks such reprehensible thoughts about the Jewish state. And it has become easier for the Palestinian leadership to assume they never have to tackle the core of the problem: terrorism, corruption and the general state of Palestinian politics and civil society.