Did Secretary of State John Kerry really back down?
One day after the Daily Beast reported that Kerry used the word "apartheid" to describe a possible future for Israel in a closed-door speech in Washington, D.C., sparking outrage from Israel supporters across the political spectrum, the State Department tried to douse the flames by distributing a statement in his name.
Titled, "On Support for Israel," the statement covered the obvious points: Kerry has a long track record of standing with Israel; he never said that the country is an "apartheid" state; if he could "rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word."
But the statement did a couple other things as well. It repeated the word "apartheid" -- not one time, but twice. It cited a slew of Israeli figures who have themselves used the term to describe the dangers of a single, unified state that did not include autonomy for Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, including former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said in 2010: “The simple truth is, if there is one state, it will have to be either binational or undemocratic ... If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
And, far from retreating, the statement stood behind Kerry's fundamental point: "My firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution."
In the day after the Daily Beast report came out, the attacks on Kerry did not focus simply on his word choice, but on the implications of that word. "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and any linkage between Israel and apartheid is nonsensical and ridiculous," tweeted Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate,” said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
But Kerry appears to disagree. Over the past nine months, he has been deeply invested in grueling negotiations with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships about getting the two sides back to the table to discuss a two-state solution -- negotiations about negotiations. The talks have been slow and frustrating, and over the past few weeks, they finally broke apart.
One lesson of that period, as The New York Times reported Tuesday, was that if the two sides did not want to participate, "Washington cannot force an agreement." Another, according to an American official quoted in the story, was that the Palestinian leadership walked away when it saw little sign that the Israelis had any desire or incentive to make a deal.
It's very likely that this was the message Kerry was trying to send last week -- one that was designed to rekindle the sense of urgency in Israel, and one that he perhaps felt required the harsh and jarring word "apartheid" to make its point.
“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative," he said in the controversial speech on Friday. "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.”
Or, as he put it in his follow-up statement: "In the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve. That’s what I said, and it’s also what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said."
After all, even if Kerry never intended for his "apartheid" remark to become public, he certainly wasn't afraid for it to be heard by the press. As HuffPost's Michael Calderone reported Tuesday, at least four other Washington journalists were invited to attend Kerry's speech, all under the terms that it be kept off the record. It's not known if any did.