State Department stumbles: If not apartheid, then what?

Asked what word Secretary Kerry would have used in place of ‘apartheid,’ his use of which stirred up a small storm in the U.S. this week, the State Department is hard pressed to give an answer.

File photo of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, with State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki in the background, conducting a press conference, February 18, 2014.(Photo: State Dept.)
File photo of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, with State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki in the background, conducting a press conference, February 18, 2014.(Photo: State Dept.)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department on Tuesday were scrambling to diffuse the storm that erupted following Kerry’s warning that absent a two-state solution, Israel risks becoming an apartheid state. Following the publication of that speech, Kerry put out a statement that fell far short of a retraction:

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.

At the daily State Department press briefing on Tuesday, AP diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee pressed spokesperson Jen Psaki on the lack of clarity. If in retrospect, Kerry would have used a word other than “apartheid,” Lee asked over and over, what word would the secretary have used. There was, of course, no clear — or politically acceptable — answer. Basically, Psaki refuses to say that Kerry regretted using the word “apartheid,” and instead insists that the to-do surrounded the way the secretary’s words were interpreted by others. Kerry, in his statement, added: “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.” (My emphasis.) In other words, Kerry says he doesn’t believe that Israel is an apartheid state right now, nor does he believe it intends to become one. He does not, however, retract his assertion that Israel will become an unintentional or de facto apartheid state – an assertion that has also been made by a growing list of Israeli decision-makers. Read Noam Sheizaf’s breakdown of the non-apology and the insight it gives into the absurdity of the American discourse surrounding the peace process, or lack thereof. Watch the video (starting at around the 3:30 minute mark) or read the full transcript below. QUESTION (From Matt Lee): …Can I ask you, being his spokesman – spokeswoman – what word would he have used? MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, it may not be that there’s one specific word, but the important point here is that was trying to describe – and if you look at the full context of his comments, he was describing his 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. Now, he knows – and this is the reason he issued, we issued the statement on his behalf last night – that he has been around long enough to know the power of words can create a misimpression, even when that’s unintentional. And certainly, as he stated in the statement, he didn’t want to leave others to mischaracterize his record or mischaracterize his viewpoints. QUESTION: Okay. But he says that he wouldn’t have used that word – “I would have chosen a different word.” Are you saying that there is no single word that he would’ve used to – it would be a combination of several words? MS. PSAKI: Perhaps “words” may be a more accurate way of describing it, Matt. QUESTION: But the statement also – it does not appear to be an apology at all. In fact, it seems to be a restatement of his concern that absent a peace deal, what is going to – what may emerge is a system – a state in Israel, a system with two classes of citizens. Is that correct? He still believes that that is a possibility? MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly what he was referring to – and you’re right, what he was – his statement referred to the use of a specific word that is a loaded word with a great deal of history. QUESTION: Right. MS. PSAKI: And obviously, people — QUESTION: But he’s expressed this — MS. PSAKI: Let me finish my point. Obviously, people can mischaracterize that and use it to distort his views and his positions. QUESTION: Right. But I mean, if he believes, in – whether he uses the word or should’ve used the word “apartheid” or not, if he believes that that is the case, that a definition – obviously not the strict South African interpretation of the word, but another interpretation, another definition of the word, which is segregation, just basically keeping people apart – if he still believes that, why did he put the statement out? I mean, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck, right? If he thinks that. MS. PSAKI: Well, he — QUESTION: If that’s his view, that Israel faces the potential – a potential future as a state that has two classes of citizens and there’s not a full-on democracy. If that’s what he believes, why doesn’t he – why does he – why is he taking back his word? MS. PSAKI: He doesn’t disagree with the notion that many Israeli leaders have also stated – Justice Minister Livni, Prime Minister Netanyahu – many prime ministers in the past from many different political ilks have stated their concerns about a unitary state and a range of impacts that could have. He agrees with that. But he’s not naive about the games played in Washington. He – what we saw yesterday was many people use his comments and the – them out of context to distort his record and distort his viewpoints. QUESTION: But it sounds like he’s only – and not apologizing, but saying that he regrets that the word was being used because he was caught or whatever word you want to use, or someone recorded him unbeknownst to him, using it. And isn’t it true that – first of all, isn’t it true that he has expressed this sentiment, if not the word “apartheid,” to Israeli leaders in his negotiations? MS. PSAKI: Which he repeated in his statement, that what he was trying to describe was his belief that it’s not possible to achieve two states living side by side in peace and security without a two-state solution. And yes, that is a sentiment he has described privately, he has described publicly. But again — QUESTION: I mean — MS. PSAKI: Can I make one more point here? QUESTION: Yeah. MS. PSAKI: Again, what he – yesterday, as we were making the decision about putting this statement out, there were several interpretations of his comments that were inconsistent with his record of more than 30 years in public service, the work he’s done to – work with the negotiators to bring about a peace process. It didn’t reflect his views; it didn’t reflect his record. And that’s why we put a statement out. QUESTION: But it – I mean, I think Prime Minister Ehud Barak even said this — MS. PSAKI: You’re right. QUESTION: — as recently as this week. MS. PSAKI: It may be, but I didn’t list everybody, but you’re right. Many leaders from both sides — QUESTION: And defense minister – sorry, former prime minister. MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. QUESTION: But it’s – just kind of goes to Matt’s point that if he believes that – this to be true, then instead of kind of saying I regret the statement, it cut — MS. PSAKI: He didn’t say that. He said he — QUESTION: Well, not that he regrets the choice of the word – of use — MS. PSAKI: Of the specific word. Yes. QUESTION: But — MS. PSAKI: That’s an important point. QUESTION: But why does he regret the choice of the word? Because it’s being interpreted by others, or because he doesn’t feel that way? Because it seems as if he clearly feels that way. He’s describing a situation which loosely is interpreted as an apartheid situation and he’s also pointing to others, and so it’s – that are saying it. And so it kind of seems as if he’s trying to distance himself from the criticism and not standing by exactly what he – how he believes it to be the case. MS. PSAKI: No. I absolutely disagree with that. In his statement last night, he very clearly conveyed what the point he was making. He referred to other officials who have made a similar point. QUESTION: Exactly. MS. PSAKI: At the same time, we all know – you all work in words every single day – that certain words have – are interpreted in a certain way, have history behind them. So yes, he would have used a different word. The sentiment about the importance of reaching a two-state solution and the challenges of a unitary state – yes, he does completely agree with that. QUESTION: So even though he put the statement out saying that perhaps he should have used another word, he still does think that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state in the future if there is no peace agreement and no two-state solution? MS. PSAKI: I think it’s very important, as we all know, that the use of the word, the way that people interpret the word – the power of words – is a major factor here. QUESTION: All right. Well, let’s substitute – let’s — QUESTION: But he’s just being upset about the way it was interpreted, not the way that he intended it to be perceived? MS. PSAKI: Well, people – perception is important here, Elise. The fact that people were perceiving his comments as being indicative of any – of his opposition to or lack of support for Israel is not only absurd and inaccurate, that’s completely something we – he couldn’t let stand, we couldn’t let stand. QUESTION: All right. Let’s do a little – let’s look at it this way. Let’s substitute the word apartheid for the letter X. Even though Secretary Kerry thinks that he perhaps used the wrong word in using the word X in describing what might possibly happen in the future — MS. PSAKI: But the word is the vital issue here. QUESTION: — in Israel, he still believes X is a possible – is a possible future for Israel. QUESTION: The definition of X. MS. PSAKI: He still believes that, as many Israeli officials have stated, there would be challenges to a unitary state. QUESTION: All right. Well, then — MS. PSAKI: He still believes a two-state solution — QUESTION: Okay. MS. PSAKI: — is the right ending and the right approach here. Absolutely. QUESTION: So in fact, he doesn’t – he’s not taking back his use – what he meant at all. MS. PSAKI: He is – he – it clearly stated in his statement that he would have used a different word or a different phrase. He still believes that. QUESTION: Okay. Well, what is that different word or different phrase? MS. PSAKI: Well, I think I – as is evidenced in his statement, Matt, he says he would have used a different way to describe — QUESTION: He would have said — MS. PSAKI: — his belief that a two-state solution is the only way for two peoples to live side by side. QUESTION: All right. So it’s just the invocation, he’d say – he’d invoke the specter of apartheid. That’s the – the specter of apartheid – doesn’t that – doesn’t hang over Israel’s potential future if there is no peace deal and those — MS. PSAKI: He would not describe it that way if he were to rewind the tape again. QUESTION: All right. The other thing he says – it’s “a word best left out of the debate here at home.” MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. QUESTION: Okay. Does that mean that next time he goes to Israel he will feel free to use the word apartheid — MS. PSAKI: It does not. QUESTION: — or in any other country? MS. PSAKI: I think he’s acknowledging – he’s acknowledging in his statement the fact that many in Washington interpret the words, given the history, justifiably, with an added meaning. QUESTION: Okay. So he — MS. PSAKI: That was not his intention. QUESTION: So it is the toxic – one might say toxic political environment in Washington that prevents him from speaking what he feels to be true? Is that — MS. PSAKI: I think we all know that words not only have meaning, but they can be taken and interpreted in many ways, and it’s our interest to convey exactly what his view is — QUESTION: But — MS. PSAKI: — and what it’s not. QUESTION: Okay. So it’s in your interest to clarify what you meant when you used the term. But if you come out to the briefing and you say certain words and we interpret it a certain way, you don’t come back the next day and say, “Oh, well, I regret using those choice of words. Let me say it a different way.” MS. PSAKI: I think the Secretary of State and words he uses and the meaning of them is something different from that. QUESTION: But Jen, can I actually clarify, does he regret using that word? I mean, he said – he doesn’t say that in his statement. He says if I — MS. PSAKI: He said he would have used a different word, Jo. QUESTION: — if I could I’d rewind the tape. MS. PSAKI: He would have used a different word or a different phrase. QUESTION: Because I know there’s a lot of – on the TVs today, everybody’s saying – interpreting this as an apology. Is it an apology? MS. PSAKI: He said he would have used a different word or a different term. QUESTION: So it’s not an apology. MS. PSAKI: I think I’m going to leave it as he described it. QUESTION: So it’s not an – so he doesn’t regret using the word “apartheid”? MS. PSAKI: By saying he would have used a different word, I think he’s saying he would have done it differently. So I’ll leave you to — QUESTION: So is that an expression of his regret? MS. PSAKI: I think I’ll leave it in his words, Jo. Related: Kerry apologizes for speculating that theoretically, in the distant future, Israel could do something bad If this isn’t apartheid, then what is it? What can we learn from the Israel apartheid analogy?