John Kerry Shouldn't Have Apologized: Israel's Practice of Apartheid Doomed the Peace Process


After nine months of grueling diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to forge Middle East peace have collapsed.

Kerry attempted to cajole the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership into reaching an agreement for two states to solve the decades-old conflict, which began with the Zionist movement’s colonization efforts in the late 19th century and intensified with the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem in 1967.  

Kerry tried optimism. In a speech last June to the American Jewish Committee, he urged the pro-Israel audience to “think of the security benefits: an Israel where schoolchildren actually run around a playground without having to run into bunkers and shelters to escape the incoming rocket fire.”

He warned what was around the corner if the peace process fails. The Secretary of State told Israel in February that the death of peace talks would lead to an “increasing delegitimization campaign” and “talk of boycotts.”

Kerry dangled the carrot of economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank leadership that has only limited control over cities.

All of the rhetoric and promised aid fell flat on its face. By the end of the nine-month period of diplomacy—a window of time Kerry warned could be the last chance for a two-state solution—the Secretary found himself in hot water over use of the term “apartheid.” While he eventually backtracked, Kerry’s apartheid warning points to why the peace talks spectacularly failed: Israel’s unrelenting efforts to institutionalize a separate and unequal system of rights in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Speaking to the Trilateral Commission in late April, an NGO populated with elites from around the world, Kerry warned that the two-state solution—a Palestinian state living alongside the already established Israel—was essential. If the solution didn’t come about, “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.”  

It was the first time a senior American official warned that Israel could become an “apartheid” state, where rights are meted out based on a person’s ethnicity.

Kerry came under intense criticism from a host of lawmakers and Israel lobby groups for using the term apartheid. In a statement released the day after remarks from his secretly taped speech were published, Kerry said, “If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word.” After noting that Israeli leaders had used the term apartheid to warn about Israel/Palestine’s future, he said that the word is “best left out of the debate here at home.”

When an official so quickly backtracks, it usually means he said something revealing. And he did: many analysts have pointed out that Israel’s regime of control constitutes apartheid in many areas. As Diana Buttu, a former adviser to Palestinian negotiators, said in a statement released to reporters: “Secretary Kerry may regret using the term 'apartheid' to describe a future reality that Palestinians, in fact, already face, but neither his regret, nor his choice of a 'different word' can undo the reality that Palestinians live under an apartheid regime.”

The most blatant examples of Israeli apartheid are clear as day in the occupied West Bank, which Israel conquered from Jordan in the 1967 war, though the unequal system of rights prevails in Gaza, Jerusalem and Israel proper. There are separate roads for Palestinians and Israeli Jewish settlers, whose residence in occupied territory constitutes a war crime under the Geneva Convention. Israeli settlers use six times as much as water as Palestinians. And while Israeli settlers, who don’t live in Israel proper, are governed by Israeli law, Palestinians are subject to a brutal military regime that lacks due process rights.  

It is the settlement issue that was a key part of why Kerry’s efforts to create a Palestinian state were doomed. Beginning in 1967, Israel began to populate the West Bank and Gaza with communities for Israeli Jews that were built on Palestinian land and used Palestinian resources. (Settlers and the Israeli army pulled out of Gaza in 2005, though Israel retains control of Gaza’s airspace, sea and borders and puts it under a severe blockade.) The result of the settlement project was a total of 500,000 settlers living on Palestinian land in communities that slice and dice the West Bank, a process made all the more intense by a separation barrier and a system of roads for settlers.

The settlements block Palestinian contiguity, which is crucial for a functioning state. But rather than cease settlement building while talking about peace, Israel intensified its colonization effort. According to a report published by the group Peace Now this month, Israel approved about 14,000 settlement units during the past nine months of negotiations—averaging about 50 a day.

The building of settlements was one of the final nails in the coffin of this round of talks. In early April, after Israel refused to release the last goup of Palestinian prisoners it had originally promised to send home, the negotiations reached a deadlock. Then the Israeli government announced it was approving 700 new settlement units in East Jerusalem. As Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in comments that also sparked a row with Israel, “Poof, that was sort of the moment.”

Then, as diplomacy was collapsing, Fatah, the Palestinian political party predominant in the Palestinian Authority, announced a tentative deal to reconcile with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza. 

Since 2007, the two political parties have been at loggerheads, which deepened a geographical split damaging to Palestinians but served Israel’s interests. Israeli officials roared their disapproval at the steps towards reconciliation and formally canceled diplomatic meetings, even though Hamas has no plans to formally enter the Palestinian government at the moment. The reconciliation deal would only mean Hamas’ support for a new Palestinian government composed of “technocrats” and would pave the way for elections in six months.

Talks between the two sides may start up again in the future. But it’s unlikely they will be serious, especially if, as President Obama recently suggested, the U.S. takes a step back. A new era is likely for the Israel/Palestine conflict, where the struggle for Palestinian rights and equality takes center stage instead of talks over a Palestinian state that would be truncated and hemmed in.

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