Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly made some private remarks to world leaders on Friday, which he did not intend to share with the public, during which he warned that Israel runs the risk of becoming an “apartheid state.”
The political blowback was not immediate, but as the day progressed yesterday, it grew louder. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) demanded an apology mid-day, and a few hours later, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was on the Senate floor calling on Kerry to resign – a move that even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) found laughable. Nevertheless, a handful of congressional Democrats, including Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), also publicly expressed concerns.
In response, Kerry issued a statement last night, which has generally been characterized as an “apology.” But it’s worth taking a closer look at exactly what the Secretary said. The 331-word statement is a little long to publish here in its entirety, but after emphasizing his support for Israel and the peace process, Kerry dismissed “partisan, political” criticisms. He then clarified:
“First, Israel is a vibrant democracy and I do not believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that without a shred of doubt.“Second, I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional, and 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. 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. While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Ohlmert have all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”
The fact that Kerry wishes he’d “chosen a different word” is an expression of regret, but it was his references to specific Israeli leaders and their comments that struck me as arguably more important.
To be sure, “apartheid” is a provocative word in this context, but Kerry’s not dumb. On the contrary, the nation’s chief diplomat took this opportunity to extend a subtle reminder to those who were critical of him yesterday: he’s not the only one using this provocative word in this context.
For example, former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak – a prominent figure in Netanyahu’s government – has also raised the specter of Israel becoming an “apartheid state.” In 2007, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert didn’t use the “a” word specifically, but he didn’t leave much doubt as to his concerns when he warned of Israel facing “a South African-style struggle.”
Kerry’s point, in other words, was pretty obvious: Israeli leaders have made comments that were practically identical to those he made privately over the weekend. So unless Ted Cruz, Eric Cantor, and others are prepared to say Israeli prime ministers are anti-Israel, perhaps they should turn down the volume on their latest outrage.
In this sense, Kerry’s statement was perhaps less of an apology and more of a passive-aggressive reaction to a manufactured controversy.