Acknowledging Israeli apartheid

Despite fury from pro-Israel lobbyists at accusations of apartheid, even a majority of Israelis - 58% - think that it exists in their country

Sharif Nashashibi

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is a much maligned and misunderstood man in Israel. Last week, he said it was “imperative” to have a two-state solution, otherwise “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.”

Kerry has long been a staunch ally of Israel, in words and deeds. “I won’t allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone,” he said last week. “For more than 20 years in the U.S. Senate, I didn’t just speak words in support of Israel, I walked the walk when it came time to vote, and when it came time to fight.”

He previously said he would “never compromise America’s special relationship with Israel,” or “pressure Israel to make concessions that will compromise its security.” Indeed, Palestinian officials complained that during the last nine months of talks, Kerry’s position reflected Israel’s.

His proposal urged acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state - a red line for the Palestinians, and a demand not made of Egypt or Jordan when they made peace with Israel. Thus it is safe to assume that the motivation behind his push for a two-state solution is the maintenance of Israel’s Jewishness, rather than any concern for Palestinians’ citizenship rights.

Friendly advice

As such, Kerry’s warning last week should have been taken by Israel and its supporters as concern from a friend, rather than condemnation from an enemy. Even Israel’s fanatic Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - who makes a habit of insulting just about everyone, including U.S. officials - recently described the secretary of state as a “true friend.”

Despite fury from pro-Israel lobbyists at accusations of apartheid, even a majority of Israelis - 58% - think that it exists in their country

Sharif Nashashibi

However, Kerry’s very mention of the possibility of apartheid resulted in calls for an apology, and even his resignation. This despite the fact that, as the Associated Press put it, “he had voiced an opinion that is frequently heard in Israel itself.” Those voices include Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, among other prominent figures.

Similarly, in February Kerry caused uproar in Israel by warning that “there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up,” and that “there are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things” if negotiations collapse. He was trying to avert a strengthened boycott campaign, but judging from Israel’s reaction, one would think he was actually calling for it.


“I don’t believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one,” Kerry said in response to the furore over his comments last week. “Anyone who knows anything about me knows that without a shred of doubt.”

He added: “I’ve 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’ve 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.”

When journalists pressed U.S. officials about which word he should have used instead, no alternative was provided. That is because no other description is appropriate. Kerry’s retraction was carefully worded, and in a sense was not actually a retraction, since he never said Israel is already an apartheid state, or that it intends to be one. As such, his comments last week did not go nearly far enough.

Denying the obvious

A state system of discrimination clearly exists, and has done so for decades, not just in the occupied territories, but also for Palestinian citizens of Israel. “If maintaining the occupation will become apartheid in the future, why, after 46 years of it, isn’t the occupation apartheid now? What’s going to be different later?” asked Larry Derfner, a former columnist and feature writer for the Jerusalem Post.

Despite fury from pro-Israel lobbyists at accusations of apartheid, even a majority of Israelis - 58% - think that it exists in their country, with 39% saying it exists “in some ways,” and 19% “in many ways,” according to a poll in Oct. 2012.

This view is shared and expressed across the country’s spectrum, from politicians to judges, journalists, academics, human rights groups and diplomats. As such, the debate - in Israel at least - seems to be not so much about whether apartheid exists, but whether it is justified.

Parallels with South Africa

In addition, consider the views of black South Africans, who know better than anyone what apartheid looks like. Many prominent black South Africans have drawn such parallels after seeing for themselves Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ismail Coovadia, South Africa’s ambassador to Israel until Dec. 2012.

Some have gone further, saying what the Palestinians are enduring is even worse than apartheid South Africa. This was the conclusion of South African activists - including members of the ruling African National Congress - who visited the Holy Land in 2008. John Dugard, a South African professor of international law, expressed the same view during his tenure as U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories.

Parallels have also been made by white South African politicians who served during the apartheid era, perhaps most notably Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd and Defence Minister Jacobus Johannes Fouche.

Denial that a state system of discrimination exists comes from fear of the resulting conclusion that many will draw, and are drawing: that the methods used to secure the rights of black South Africans could work for the Palestinians.

Being blind to the reality of Israeli apartheid is bad enough, but silencing those who warn of the consequences is downright foolish. A friend should tell you the truth, not simply what you want to hear. The American-Israeli relationship has yet to come to this basic realization.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

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