Independence Day: Choosing Words Carefully

It has been a week since John Kerry apologized, with a certain recalcitrance, for having suggested, in an address to a closed-door meeting of the Trilateral Commission, that Israel was at risk of becoming “an apartheid state.” While Israel prepares to celebrate its Independence Day on Tuesday, the White House has declared a “pause” in its peace efforts, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has rallied lawmakers to admire “the lone stable democracy in the Middle East,” and Martin Indyk, the chief U.S. negotiator, has returned to Washington. Susan Rice, who was known to be skeptical of Kerry’s gambit, is coming to consult with Prime Minister Netanyahu about the Iranian nuclear negotiations. It seems as if Israel has managed to ditch the talks while keeping its friends.

Israelis who seek a stable democracy, however, are feeling betrayed by the Obama Administration’s hasty retreat, and they are regretting Kerry’s expression of regret not because they like the word “apartheid” but because they don’t like American effeteness. These Israelis have been heartened by Kerry’s strong drive to achieve two states (which Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon dismissed as “messianic”)—and to mobilize a democratic Israeli majority against a fierce minority who take occupation for granted. In clarifying his original statement, Kerry insisted, “I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone.” But one cannot simply have a “commitment to Israel”; one must be committed to one or the other vision of Israel’s future—to one group of Israelis over another.

This idea remains difficult for people outside the country to grasp. The risk for the future is not that the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank will disappear, and the Israeli majority—and hence Israeli democracy—will be compromised. The risk is that the forces of “settlement” are winning. Over time, these forces—whom Netanyahu has drawn into his coalition, and with whom he probably sympathizes but cannot easily control—have assumed commanding positions in the Likud Party, in key ministries, in the Army, and in the legal system. It would be insensitive, given the horrors of Jewish history, to call these people fascists. So let us say that they include ultra-nationalists who traffic in xenophobic grievances, religious messianists who are unashamed of racist claims, militarists who regard liberal Tel Aviv as decadent, proponents of civil solidarity who scoff at legal constraints, wards of the state who depend on a command economy, and acolytes of authoritarian “spiritual leaders.”

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