Monday, November 20, 2017

Unpacking Kerry’s “Apartheid” slip


By Beth Staton - April 30, 2014
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Opinion]
Tags: [Peace Process] [Apartheid] [John Kerry]

It was only a matter of time. After a flurry of outrage over John Kerry throwing the 'A’ word into the slanging match of the Peace Process, the US Secretary of State has backtracked. The use of “apartheid” to describe a potential future for Israel, he said yesterday, was unfortunate: “if I could rewind the tape,” he told a Fox News interviewer Tuesday morning, “I  would have chosen a different word.”

 
The response is, of course, entirely expected. It’s not even really disappointing: the comments that Kerry retracted were hardly saying anything that should have merited excitement in the first place.They were couched in narrative that spread the blame for the peace talks’ failure equally, and suggested that the US might put forward its own plan for the negotiators to “take or leave.” Given the mediator’s track record, that’s an outcome that would be unlikely to pan out fairly for the Palestinians. 
 
Most importantly, though, Kerry’s use of the apartheid label was hypothetical. Even in his initial comments, he was at pains to clearly communicate the party line: that “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.” 
 
The heavily guarded comment and the retraction were inevitable in a world that’s made a flashpoint of the word apartheid. As ever, the mainstream response to Kerry’s comments chiefly concerned the word itself.  A great deal of energy, for example, was dedicated to explaining the importance of avoiding unhelpful or divisive language. The American Jewish Committee’s Dan Harris said Kerry’s vocabulary invoked “notions that have no place in the discussion” that took it to an “entirely different dimension.” US senator Barbara Boxer of California even weighed in, calling the link between Israel and apartheid “nonsensical and ridiculous.” 
 
If Boxer has checked out the documentation on the subject, she will know that apartheid itself is certainly not nonsensical. The crime of apartheid, as stated in the 1998 Rome Statute, can be defined as “inhumane acts” that are “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
Kerry’s refusal to call out apartheid is symptomatic of his inability to properly take Israel to task on its behaviour. 
What scenarios would Boxer, Harris and the many others furious over Kerry’s remarks think might be appropriately considered within this definition?
 
If a racially-defined state had been subjecting the territory of another people to a brutal military occupation for 46 years, would it then be fitting to suggest the loaded term? If those people were subjected to harsh movement restrictions, routine housing demolitions and transfers, and unlawful and inhumane imprisonment, might there possibly be a case for floating a description with such strong connotations?
 
Perhaps if members of the subjugated group were routinely shot dead by the military of the dominant state, with neither justification nor accountability, it might justify the application of a word that could cause a great deal of offense. Certainly a system that enforced these oppressions to preserve the privilege of another ethno-religiously defined people to enjoy life in a parallel system, under separate laws and in segregated communities, would merit at least some interrogation in the frame of apartheid. 
 
Even laying these realities of Israeli occupation aside for a moment, one would hope that when a label like 'apartheid’ is levelled at a situation of violence, separation and oppression, that at least some effort would be made to examine that situation, to consider the violations and the human suffering that have prompted the accusation to be made. To hope as much from the American establishment with regard to Israel, however, is apparently too optimistic.
 
Instead, the official response is limited to manufactured offense and backtracking. One of the world’s supposedly most powerful men apologizes and ingratiates himself to Israel’s supporters for even daring to utter the forbidden phrase. These familiar rituals of repentance are demanded even when criticism is muted and partial, spoken in a private forum, levelled at the potential for badness rather than the flagrant and unacceptable facts on the ground. 
Kerry’s refusal to call out apartheid is symptomatic of his inability to properly take Israel to task on its behaviour. It’s spurred by the same approach that makes him turn a blind eye to settlements and extrajudicial killings; to pander to Israeli intransigence with proposals that the Palestinians could never be expected to accept.  
 
And it’s this that allows the status quo – the settler-colonialism, the systematic oppression, the racial domination – to continue. It allows the system of apartheid to go on and on under the cover of negotiations and diplomacy and turns the peace process into something that enables the oppressor rather than exposing it to any kind of justice. 
 
If Kerry cannot comprehend this, there can be no hope that he will make the demands of Israel that are necessary for any kind of peace. If he can’t recognize that apartheid is happening now, there’s not much hope that he’ll be able to prevent it in the future.  

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