Posted by Kristin Mccarthy on April 29, 2014 in Blog

There has been a swift and predictable condemnation of Secretary John Kerry’s behind closed doors remarks last Friday that Israel risks becoming apartheid state if peace negotiations fail. The Secretary himself couldn’t issue an apology fast enough for using the same “unhelpful” language that reportedly got former President Jimmy Carter ostracized from Obama’s inner peace circle in 2007 when he published his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”  

Coming just days after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu suspended peace negotiations in wake of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, Secretary Kerry’s private remarks are big news. Language has always been a delicate subject in the Peace Process and for a sitting Secretary of State to utter “apartheid” and “Israel” in the same sentence is quite unprecedented. It isn’t surprising, though, that Secretary Kerry and company have worked to walk back the leaked quote amidst strong condemnation from Israeli and US officials alike. Within 24 hours of the report, Secretary Kerry corrected what he called a “misimpression” of his beliefs by stating, “If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe 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.” This correction is interesting.  Kerry did not change the substance of his statement or his warning of what the future of Israel will look like without peace. He has, however, made his language more palatable to purveyors of the status quo without regard to the Palestinian narrative or the basic fact that his prognostication, is not an unreasonable prediction of what a one state outcome would ultimately be.

Secretary Kerry’s use of apartheid language punctuates a month of breaking news stories that reveal a Palestinian attempt to change the dynamics of the peace process and assert their own agency. April began with the Palestinian Authority moving to join 15 UN agencies when Israel failed to uphold its promise to release Palestinian prisoners and continued to announce expansive settlement growth. And consider the relative surprise of the recent announcement of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, which was followed by Israel’s unsurprising suspension of negotiations. Or, in what might be the most unexpected move, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognized the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” only to have Netanyahu bizarrely dismiss his statement as a shallow ploy by Palestinians to blame Israel for failed negotiations. So, while Palestinian leadership looks to move forward and define a new role more capable of advancing change, Israeli and US officials appear to be scrambling to deny and stall these changes, and to preserve the language and realities of the status quo.

The still unfolding backlash to Secretary Kerry’s apartheid warning detracts from the past month’s narrative of Palestinians changing the dynamics of negotiations. It is also a reminder that although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a foreign policy concern, it is also a definitive domestic issue. Congressional posturing has already started by representatives looking to solidify their standing with Israeli officials and pro-Israel audiences in the US; notably Senators Rand Paul and Barbara Boxer have both individually distanced themselves from Kerry’s remarks. And though Kerry’s comments ruffled some linguistic feathers, they might also reenergize congressional support of controversial legislation like the Israeli Visa Waiver and proposed legislation to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority.

As much work as there is needed on the foreign policy front to reach a just solution to the conflict, there is an equal amount of work that must be done domestically to change the language as well as the substance of what is deemed appropriate on Capitol Hill. It is unfortunate that a month of changing realities has ended with an all too harsh assertion of the status quo, both on Capitol Hill and at the now vacant peace negotiations table.


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