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Does it matter that John Kerry compared Israel to apartheid?


In the handful of days since Secretary of State John Kerry warned at a private event that Israel could become "an apartheid state" if it doesn't solve the Israel-Palestine conflict, the foreign policy world has been consumed by two waves of outrage, both of them as predictable as they are unhelpful. The first, from the pro-Israel right, says that Kerry has dangerously and unconscionably slurred an American ally, perhaps to the point of anti-Semitism. The second, from the pro-Palestine left, says that Kerry is being tarred and feathered for speaking the truth, thus revealing American double-standards and hypocrisy around Israel.

What we're not debating at all, though, is the substance of Kerry's points or the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict. This kind of distraction has happened before: pretty much the entire American discourse around Israel-Palestine has devolved into an endless stream of language-policing. We've managed to reduce one of the most important and complicated conflicts in the world down to an argument about metaphors.

In addition to making the Israel-Palestine debate highly unpleasant and unproductive, this ends up driving both sides of the discussion apart, emphasizing points of semantic disagreement over points of substantive agreement, and focusing everyone away from the actual thing we're supposed to be here to talk about, which is finding peace in the Middle East. This isn't the only thing holding back American discourse about, and thus perhaps American policy toward, the conflict. But it's a not-insignificant part of it, and one that symbolizes our larger inability to set aside finger-pointing arguments about who has more moral superiority in favor of finding actual policy solutions.

Here's the thing neither side of this argument really wants to admit: they basically agree on the substance. Kerry's argument, which he sort of reiterated in his non-apology, is that if the Israel-Palestine conflict never gets resolved, then as the Palestinian population grows larger than the Jewish population, Israel will either lose its Jewish political identity or it will have to make Palestinians second-class citizens. This is a point that Israeli politicians often make (they also sometimes compare this scenario to South African apartheid). Even Israel Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, in discussing Kerry's comments, acknowledged and reiterated this point.

So the apartheid metaphor has merit. So does, by the way, the case against the metaphor. There is a real, not-insignificant movement that sees the Israeli state as illegitimate and wants to abolish it outright. This is why Israelis and pro-Israel folks can be skittish about the comparison: apartheid ended by abolishing the apartheid state and replacing it with majority rule in South Africa. That was the right solution for South Africa, but it is not the right solution for Israel-Palestine, which just about everyone but far-left and far-right groups agree should be solved by demarcating out separate Israeli and Palestinian states. Some people worry that the apartheid metaphor builds a case for the movement that wants to abolish the Israeli state.

Still, Kerry was clearly not arguing for abolishing Israel, so the indelicateness of his language aside, his actual point is one with which many of his critics agree. That's why, for many on the pro-Palestine left who argue that Israel is currently an apartheid state, seeing him get publicly hammered is taken as further proof that American discourse forbids any substantive criticism of Israel and demands a pro-Israel double-standard. So that's the debate we're having now.

This is all discourse about discourse; it's a debate about the rules of the debate. And that is pretty close to the only kind of public conversation we have about Israel-Palestine anymore. Why is the pro-Israel right so intent on focusing on the narrow question of the appropriateness of Kerry's metaphor, rather than using this moment to champion that point they agree with, that a two-state solution is necessary to protect Israel's Jewish democratic character? Why is the pro-Palestine left more interested in criticizing Kerry for not speaking up more forcefully, or in criticizing Kerry's critics, than in calling attention to the fact that an American secretary of state is pushing Israel to negotiate peace?

This is an old problem in the conflict: both sides, including their respective advocates in the US, are not talking to one another, both literally and by framing their arguments the way they do. Rather, they are talking to the rest of the world, building their case for moral superiority and victimhood and for the other side's intransigence. It's a mutual persecution complex, by which both sides seem to believe that if only everyone saw "our" suffering, saw "our" righteousness and the other side's deviousness, surely the world would come around to our side of things and would finally back us up. Then we could solve this without having to talk those untrustworthy monsters on the other sides.

In that worldview, there's little incentive to look for points of mutual interest or agreement — which is exactly what Kerry was trying to highlight in his comments. There is only incentive to look for evidence of the other side's intransigence, and to scold and police the debate moderators, which typically means the United States or United Nations. That's a great way to make sure that no one ever agrees on anything, that no one trusts anybody, and that we spend all of our time nit-picking one another's language choices rather than looking for solutions. This is far from the only or the most important reason that peace talks are perennially stalled, but it make things unnecessarily harder, and this is not a conflict that needs extra problems.

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