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John Kerry Walks Up to the Truth

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A Washington gaffe, as Michael Kinsley once observed, occurs when a politician states an obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say. John Kerry’s closed door remark before a Trilateral Commission (an elite establishment group) gathering, where he said that without a two-state solution, Israel will become an apartheid state, reaches the important gaffe category. The remark is largely true (though it would have truer if he had said that Israel already subjects most Palestinians in the territories it controls to apartheid conditions); it concerns a matter of great importance to American foreign policy, as Israel colors our relationships with the entire Arab and much of the Muslim world; and it breaches a dam on American internal discourse which the Israel lobby has fought hard to construct and defend.

Israel plays an extraordinary role in the American political system. Its leaders flood the important Sunday talk shows when any Mideast topic arises; Israelis lobbied hard for an American war against Iraq, as they do now for an American war against Iran. Americans, by and large, receive them with deference and rapt attention. They also honor Israel by subsidizing it: Americans give more foreign aid to Israel, a rich country, than to all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. So for Kerry to suggest, even with a heavy heart, that Israel is headed for apartheid in the absence of a two state solution is to tread into Emperor’s New Clothes territory. It may be true, indeed of course it’s true. But for a high ranking American politician to actually say so falls somewhere between lèse-majesté and blasphemy.

Kerry was rapidly denounced by Israel lobbyists in their multiple guises. Commentary called the comments a “calumny” against Israel. One of Bill Kristol’s groups, the Emergency Committee for Israel, called for Obama to fire Kerry, and for Hillary Clinton to repudiate his remarks. AIPAC called the remarks “offensive” and “inappropriate,” comments echoed by the ADL and the American Jewish Committee. The National Jewish Democratic Committee, a major arm of Democratic Party fundraising, expressed its “deep disappointment” with the remarks, rejecting the idea that racially based governance “in any way describes Israel.” Kerry was asked to apologize.

He didn’t—he clarified.  Kerry stated that if he could “rewind the tape” he wouldn’t use the A word, while reminding everyone that current Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livini, and former prime ministers Olmert and Barak had explicitly claimed Israel was headed towards apartheid if it didn’t come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Some saw this statement as a grovel, but it could as easily be read as a non-apologetic “explanation.”

The facts under discussion are clear enough. In his Commentary article, Peter Wehner–laid out some standard talking points: Palestinians within the 1967 borders benefit from the full range of citizenship rights. One can quibble with this , as Israel has many laws and customs which limit real civic participation to Jews, but it is largely true that Israel’s million or so Palestinian Arabs possess civil rights. The over the top expressions of hatred leveled at the Palestinians who who get elected to the Knesset, reported in lurid and sometimes terrifying detail in Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, indicate that many Israelis are far from reconciled to Palestinians having these rights and making use of them. But it is to Israel’s credit that Israeli democracy is at least partially functional. Ditto the apologists’ claim that Israel is the “only democracy” in the Middle East. This too is arguably the case. South Africa was, at least for its whites, a well-functioning democracy as well—and in this realm compared favorably to the other states in Africa. Apartheid is not incompatible with democracy for the privileged ethnic group.

The point, Kerry’s and Livni’s and Barak’s and Olmert’s—is that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza don’t have these rights. They don’t have self-determination either. The West Bank is effectively cantonized into half a dozen townships by Israeli checkpoints. Palestinians can’t come or go without Israeli permission. They have no control over their water resources or their internet. They can’t travel anywhere and return without Israeli say so, which is given or denied arbitrarily. They are effectively stateless, controlled by a government over which they have no say. And this has gone on for nearly fifty years. Peter Wehner and the others who are shouting “calumny” know these facts and don’t try to rebut them. The standard talking point is that Israel made generous offers of Palestinian statehood, but that is a talking point, not a reality: Israel’s famous Camp David “offer” in 2000 was never formally proposed in writing, and what was suggested by Israeli negotiatiors was something far less than a sovereign Palestinian state. The insincerity of Israel’s interest in Palestinian statehood can be inferred by the fact Israel approved building permits for 14,000 new settler apartments in the West Bank while the most recent talks were ongoing. The current Israeli government has no desire to help midwife a Palestinian state, a fact which John Kerry, if he didn’t fully recognize before, surely does now.

We are left with the question of why did Kerry say this. He is, by all appearances, a man who measures his words with care, one given, if anything, to diplomatic doublespeak. He supported the Iraq war, perhaps against his better judgment. He may have once have been an outspoken Vietnam war opponent, but from this background he gradually become a consummate establishment politician, a cautious figure with little record of saying original or daring things.

In short, it is highly unlikely Kerry used the apartheid word casually, or by accident. He knew full well that top Israeli politicians have used it, that former President Jimmy Carter had used it (about the West Bank, not Israel proper). He almost certainly knew that most serious foreign policy observers not just in the United States but throughout the world realize that Israel—once revered as a redeeming and admirable achievement, is now widely perceived as an oppressive, racist force. It stunts the lives of millions of Palestinians through a combination of brute power and racially based bureaucratic entanglement. Its current, democratically elected, leaders have no intention of changing that. If Kerry once doubted this, he knows it now, after nine months of futile shuttle diplomacy. As does former Mideast mediator George Mitchell, as does Obama, as do the top Mideast experts on Kerry’s staff. What Kerry said may be a gaffe, but it is one that most people know to be true. And look around: more and more are ready to take the flak and abuse hurled at those who speak the truth out loud.

Now even the careful John Kerry has tiptoed up towards the truth before performing a slight, well-modulated semi-walkback. Kerry won’t resign; Obama won’t ask him to, and the calls for his resignation will soon peter out. At some point speaking the truth about Israel will no longer be a “gaffe”—and we’re getting nearer to it every day. Perhaps that’s even what Kerry intended.

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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