Kerry warns: Israel could become an apartheid state

The apartheid analogy is common among centrist Israeli politicians, but the U.S. administration has been careful not to use it in the past. Also: What makes Kerry think that Israel is not already ‘a unitary state?’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (State Dept. photo)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (State Dept. photo)

The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin obtained a recording of a meeting in which Secretary of State John Kerry used the term “apartheid” to describe what an Israeli regime would look like – if and when efforts to bring about a two-state solution fails.

Speaking to senior officials and experts from the U.S., Western Europe, Russia and Japan, Kerry warned of renewed violence in the West Bank, and criticized Palestinian and Israeli leaders for not making enough concessions in order to reach an agreement. The money quote:

“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because 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 […] Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to.”

On the one hand, there is not much new in this statement. This is the kind of talk we have been hearing from centrist Israeli politicians from some time now. Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni have all issued similar warnings. In Barak and Livni’s case, it didn’t prevent them from cooperating and even leading governments that set record numbers in new settlement construction. It’s interesting to note how senior U.S. officials always use the framing of the Israeli center-left when describing the Palestinian issue. As readers of this blog know, I believe that this is the reason for repeated American failure here – every administration since the mid-1990s’ willful blindness to the Palestinian narrative and interests.

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But there is also something telling in this quote. As Rogin observes, the apartheid analogy is something the administration has rejected in the past, either because it feared the response of the pro-Israeli lobby, or because it simply thought it wasn’t true. The terms used by Secretary Kerry reveal the level of frustration with the current Israeli leadership, or with the administration’s repeated failures to get concessions out of Netanyahu.

The most interesting thing in Kerry’s comments was the term he chose to describe Israel if and when a two-state solution is not reached – “a unitary state.” Normally this term is used to distinguish models in which a central state government delegates powers to sub-national, local governments and authorities, as opposed to federal or confederate models, in which the sub-units grant power to the central authority.

But if you examine the kind of control Israel already exercises in the West Bank, one could claim that this is already a unitary state.

Israel controls all the entry and exit points in the entire territory (the occupied territories and “Israel proper” within the Green Line). It controls the air space, and treats the borders of the entire territory as if they were it’s own soverign borders. It settles its own citizens freely on the entire land. It controls the official currency of the land (the shekel) and the only central bank; it has a monopoly over the use of force; and finally, it controls the registration of the population, allowing Israel to be the sole authority to determine who is granted entry, or considered a native, and who isn’t.

In other words, this is a single, sovereign regime, which delegates some authorities to the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo Accords. Israel also has the power to revoke much of what it handed to the Palestinians, unilaterally. (For example, Israel is now withholding tax money it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority as a punitive measure for the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas.) Most Israelis and Palestinians living in this land – myself included – were born into this reality, and if you ask anyone in this land who is the sovereign power, they will have the same answer.

The secretary of state was not referring to a future scenario, but to what is already here.

‘There was no generous offer’: A history of peace talks
If this isn’t apartheid, then what is it?