US secretary of state John Kerry has issued an unusual statement y evening expressing his support for Israel after a controversy erupted over a politically charged phrase he used in a private appearance.
Speaking to a closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission last week, Mr Kerry said that if a Middle East peace agreement was not achieved, Israel risked becoming an "apartheid state," according to an article in The Daily Beast, an online publication.
The comments were noted in the Israeli news media and were severely criticized by some American Jewish organisations. “Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said. “Israel is the lone stable democracy in the Middle East, protects the rights of minorities regardless of ethnicity or religion.”
The Anti-Defamation League called the comment “disappointing”.
Republican politicians were also critical. Senator Marco Rubio, a possible presidential contender from Florida, said Mr Kerry’s comments were “outrageous and disappointing.”
The remarks were first reported by The Daily Beast after a reporter for the website slipped into a meeting of world leaders and taped the event.
During his push for a comprehensive peace agreement, Mr Kerry has repeatedly warned Israel could face economic pressure from European countries as well as Palestinian violence and a demographic time bomb at home - meaning Jews could become a minority in Israel and the territories they control - if Israel did not negotiate an agreement that led to an independent Palestinian state.
His recent comments came at a particularly sensitive moment with the peace talks put off, after Israel's decision to suspend negotiations because of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's announcement of its reconciliation with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that governs Gaza.
In the statement issued by Mr Kerry last night, he said he had been a staunch supporter of Israel during his years as a senator and had spent many hours since working with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. "For more than 30 years in the United States Senate, I didn't just speak words in support of Israel," Mr Kerry said in his statement. "I walked the walk when it came time to vote and when it came time to fight."
Mr Kerry added that he did not believe Israel was an “apartheid state” or intended to become one. He did not dispute he had used the phrase but said it had led to a “misimpression” about his views. “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,” he said. “In the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve,” he added.
J Street, a pro-peace Jewish organisation, defended Mr Kerry. “Instead of putting energy into attacking Secretary Kerry, those who are upset with the secretary’s use of the term should put their energy into opposing and changing the policies that are leading Israel down this road,” it said in a statement.
Israel pulled out of talks in reaction to a Palestinian Authority announcement last week that it would seek to create a unity government with its rival Hamas.
The Gaza-based group, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US, and the European Union, has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, in an attempt to reassure Israel, has said Hamas would work "under my rules and my policy".
While the Palestinian Authority recognises Israel, Hamas has yet to recognise Israel’s right to exist.
New York Times/Bloomberg