Secretary of State John Kerry defended himself against critics angered by reports that the top U.S. diplomat had warned in a private setting that Israel risked becoming an “apartheid” state.
“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,” Kerry said in a statement last night.
Kerry issued the statement, touting his record on Israel as a senator of almost 30 years, as the deadline on his goal of establishing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement expires today.
The drumbeat of criticism about his remarks grew steadily yesterday, fed by social media. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike chastised him, and Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, called for his resignation.
Kerry has “proven himself unsuitable for his position,” Cruz said in remarks from the Senate floor, “before any further harm is done to our alliance with Israel, he should offer President Obama his resignation.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, called Kerry’s statement “deeply troubling.” The Anti-Defamation League called the comment “disappointing.”
The remarks were first reported by The Daily Beast after a reporter for the website slipped into a meeting of world leaders and taped the event. Media are invited to the Trilateral Commission, but agree to do so on an off-the-record basis.
Israeli ministers also faulted Kerry for using the phrase. Kerry “should be ashamed,” Transportation Minister Israel Katz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Israel Radio.
“Apartheid is not an expression that should be used with regard to Israel; we are far from having any racial theories here,” Science Minister Yaakov Perry said on Israel Radio.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Kerry’s word choice was appropriate. “It’s good that such words are being used,” Abbas told reporters in Ramallah today.
Kerry often likes to recount the story of the moment he understood the vulnerable nature of Israel’s position in the Middle East. On a visit with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Israeli leader took him up in a fighter jet and let him take the controls. Kerry tells of flying barely a few minutes before Sharon would have to nudge him to turn, lest he cross a border.
Last night, Kerry struck back at any question of his commitment to the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
“I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone, particularly for partisan, political purposes,” he said.
“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,” he said. “Anyone who knows anything about me knows that without a shred of doubt.”
Kerry said his goal is a “two-state solution that results in a secure Jewish state and a prosperous Palestinian state, and I’ve actually worked for it.”
“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,” he said.
Those efforts are now in doubt after Israel pulled out of talks in reaction to a Palestinian Authority announcement last week that it would seek to create a unity government with its rival Hamas. The Gaza-based group, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S., and the European Union, has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.
Abbas, in an attempt to reassure Israel, has said Hamas would work “under my rules and my policy.” While the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel, Hamas has yet to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
In an e-mailed statement today, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of sabotaging the talks. “Unfortunately, Israel never gave the negotiations a chance to succeed,” Erekat said.
In his statement, Kerry observed how much harder it is to have a political discussion about Israel in the U.S. than in Israel itself. He said both Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have invoked the specter of apartheid, the system of racial segregation and inequality enshrined in South African law for decades, and said “it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at firstname.lastname@example.org Amy Teibel, Ben Holland