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No place for a reasonable discussion about Israel in Washington

Cartoon for The National by Pep Montserrat

John Kerry and the A-word: three takeaways

By John Cassidy, New Yorker
April 29, 2014

After two days of being pounded by Republicans and supporters of Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry bowed to the inevitable on Monday night, clarifying his warning that Israel, if it turns away from the peace process, risks turning into “an apartheid state.” Contrary to some reports, Kerry didn’t apologize for his language, but he did say he wished he hadn’t used that exact term.

“I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional,” Kerry said in a statement issued by the State Department. “And 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.”

Kerry’s backtracking won’t satisfy Israel’s most zealous advocates in Washington, who, these days, include a lot of conservative Republicans. But it should calm the fake furor that Republicans and members of the Israel lobby have been kicking up since the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin published some remarks Kerry made last Friday to the Trilateral Commission. (Yes, that Trilateral Commission; it still exists.) In any case, Kerry’s embarrassing retreat doesn’t alter several things that should be plain to anybody with a modicum of objectivity:

1. Most of what Kerry said was indisputable. Michael Kinsley famously said that a political gaffe occurs “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” That’s what Kerry did. If Israel gives up on a two-state solution, it faces the choice of permanently occupying the West Bank and maintaining the status quo or annexing it into Israel proper. In either case, current demographic trends suggest that, within a generation or two, the lands under Jewish control will contain fewer Jews than Arabs. At that point, what will be the future of the Jewish state? In a 2007 interview with the newspaper Haaretz, Ehud Olmert, who was then Israel’s Prime Minister, gave this answer:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished… The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us, because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.
In 2010, Ehud Barak, another former Prime Minister, addressed the same dilemma, and said this:

As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of ­Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.

In large part, Kerry was merely echoing the warnings from Olmert and Barak, and using them to support his optimism that, despite recent setbacks, a two-state solution will eventually be reached. Here is what he said:

A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because 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. Once you put that frame in your mind, that reality, which is the bottom line, you understand how imperative it is to get to the two-state solution, which both leaders, even yesterday, said they remain deeply committed to.

2. Kerry shouldn’t have used the word “apartheid.” In his statement on Monday night, he pointed out that Olmert, Barak, and even Tzipi Livni, Israel’s current Minister of Justice, have all “invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future.”
That’s true. But from the Israeli perspective they are family. Kerry is Secretary of State—America’s top foreign-policy maker and diplomat. Unfortunately, he still talks like he’s a senator. He’s verbose, he’s passionate, and he’s got boundless energy, but he doesn’t always fully think through how his words will be received. We’ve seen this before, in his comments about Syria and Crimea, and we’ve just seen it again.

In Kerry’s defense, he must have thought his remarks would remain private. But that doesn’t wholly exonerate him. The members of the Trilateral Commission are foreign-policy officials and experts from around the world. Many of them will have been aware that when it comes to the words “apartheid” and “Israel,” there’s a contentious Washington history as well as an Israeli one. It’s a history involving, among others, former President Jimmy Carter; Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who led the United Nations fact-finding mission on Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza; and Barack Obama, who, in 2008, said,

There’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like ‘apartheid’ into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.

Since Kerry was talking about the future and Obama was talking about the present, he didn’t contradict his boss. But he put his fist in a hornet’s nest that should have been perfectly visible to him. If he had used the term “undemocratic state” instead of “apartheid state,” he would have gotten the same meaning across, and he wouldn’t have been forced into issuing a humiliating clarification.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, speak to the media in Washington, D.C. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty.

3. The one place you can’t have a reasonable discussion about Israel is Washington. As the prospects for a permanent peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians deteriorates, the standard of the debate in this country’s capital is deteriorating with it. Rather than supporting efforts to find peace, as they did in the not-so-distant past, Republicans are increasingly using Israel as a wedge issue to divide Democrats, raise money, and mobilize their own supporters, who include many evangelical supporters of “the Holy Land.”

The hysterical reaction to Kerry’s gaffe typified this development. Senator Marco Rubio called the Secretary of State’s remarks “outrageous” and “incendiary.” Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, called upon President Obama to make Kerry apologize, and Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, tweeted, “Disgusting. Pres O must repudiate Kerry.” A mere repudiation of Kerry wasn’t enough for one G.O.P. conservative. “Sec of State John Kerry must immediately resign due to incredibly inappropriate comments toward Israel,” tweeted Joni Ernst, a military veteran and former hog castrator, who is running for the U.S. Senate in Iowa.

That’s just politics, you (or Macbeth) might say—“a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” To some extent, I would agree. But if there’s ever going to be an end to this wretched problem, somebody—and it’s almost certainly going to have be an American President or Secretary of State—is going to have to rise above politics and bring the two sides together. What just happened to John Kerry demonstrated why that’s getting even harder to do.

Damn Right I Taped Kerry’s ‘Apartheid’ Talk

By Josh Rogin, Daily Beast
May 02, 2014

And if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it in the exact same way.

Ten years ago, when I was a rookie reporter for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, I looked up to Joseph Nye as a sacred figure, the preeminent American expert on Japan. So it hurt a little when Nye wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday to accuse me of “sneaking in” to a meeting of the Trilateral Commission last week in Washington, where John Kerry made explosive remarks warning that Israeli could become “an apartheid state.”

But I don’t blame Joseph Nye for accusing me of unethical journalism practices. He is not a journalist and he does not know the “rules” of journalism, both written and not so. I do. I’m a reporter. I know the rules and I follow them meticulously. In ten years of reporting for five different top news organizations, I’ve never broken an agreement with an official or a source and I never will. My living is dependent on that reputation and I worked hard to earn it.

If a reporter agrees that a conversation or event is off-the-record, then of course he cannot print what was said during that interchange. But the unwritten rule—the one that directly applies here—is that if a reporter enters an off-the-record event uninvited and has not agreed to the off-the-record terms, he is free to report what happens inside that event. It’s the responsibility of the event organizers to keep reporters from entering events without invitations. As long as the reporter does not misrepresent himself and does not attempt to conceal a recording device, the event is fair game. That’s the rule.

Did I enter the Trilateral Commission event with Kerry, tape it, and then reveal to the world what our Secretary of State is saying to influential world leaders behind closed doors?

Damn right I did.

Other outlets, including Politico, rushed to publish posts alleging I “sneaked” into the meeting and “secretly” recorded Kerry, based on the Nye letter. They reported “great frustration at the State Dept.” over the story. Politico also dredged up a story from 2009 when Jeffrey Goldberg accused me of being a bad Jew and worse for reporting on his interview of the Israeli ambassador at a local synagogue on Yom Kippur.

(I did issue a minor correction to that story. But on the charge of being a bad Jew? Like Hebrew National, I answer to a higher authority.)

josh rogin
Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast, responsible for many scoops over the years and feeling no regret.

The Daily Caller pointed out that even as Politico called me a “repeat offender,” its reporter acknowledged that although attendees agreed to keep the meeting off the record, “Rogin, who was not invited to the event, was not bound by this agreement.”

The Huffington Post pointed out that Nye didn’t actually present any real evidence that I was inside the meeting at all, saying only that I was recognized by a “friend” who was a member of the commission. The unnamed “friend” would not put his name in front of the accusation. Nye declined multiple times to explain why. But it really doesn’t matter.

“If Rogin attended and did not explicitly agree to any off-the-record ground rules, and did not misrepresent himself in the process, the comments are fair game to report.”
“If Rogin attended and did not explicitly agree to any off-the-record ground rules, and did not misrepresent himself in the process, the comments are fair game to report from a journalistic standpoint,” the Huffington Post explained.

Reporters can never reveal how they get their stories. Our processes, even our tricks, are sacred. They are the only advantage we have against the powerful people and organizations trying to keep information out of the public eye. They have hundreds of public affairs personnel, millions of dollars, and the ability to enforce tight control of media access to the leaders we trust with our national security and diplomacy. We have only our sources, our savvy, and our willingness to do what’s necessary to find out the things our government is trying to hide, within the bounds of the rules.

Nevertheless, in the interest of transparency, I will make this one time exception to my rule of never talking about my reporting process. Here is exactly what happened.

Friday morning I got a tip from a source that Kerry would be speaking at the Trilateral Commission meeting at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, a luxurious place just far enough away from downtown DC to avoid random foot traffic but still only 10 minutes from my office by taxi. The State Department had disclosed Kerry’s appearance there and marked it “closed press” in their daily scheduling note, but had not disclosed the location. I hopped in a cab.

I got there early so I parked myself in an empty room near the lobby and finished up another story I was working on. At about 2:30, the time of Kerry’s scheduled remarks, I walked over to the meeting room, walked straight to the front entrance of the room, nodded politely to the staffer at the door (she nodded back) and entered along with dozens of other people who were filing in.

Nobody ever asked me who I was. I didn’t have a name tag but many of the invited attendees weren’t wearing theirs so nobody thought anything of it. As the approximately 200 attendees got settled in for the Kerry speech, I found a seat in the corner, opened up my laptop, placed my recorder on my lap in plain sight, turned it on, and waited for the fun to begin.

A fellow journalist—I won’t say who, but you can read a list of the ones that attended the event here—spotted me in the hallway before the event. We made chit chat and talked about The Trilateral Commission in general terms. He mentioned that he was a member of the Commission. He didn’t ask me if I was a member or was invited and I didn’t volunteer any information either way. I have no idea if he is the “friend” who ratted me out to Joseph Nye.

Kerry stuck mostly to his script, but veered off at times, as he often does. I was focused on his remarks about Ukraine, when he seemed to reveal new information about intelligence collection on Russia and promised new sanctions. (I finished up a story from the room, and attributed Kerry’s remarks to “an attendee,” because there I was. Once I got home and had a chance to listen to the tapes, I sourced Kerry’s remarks to a recording obtained by The Daily Beast.) Kerry’s remarks on Israel were typical for him, until he dropped the now infamous A-bomb.

I left in the middle of the Q&A because I had another appointment. We will probably never know what else Kerry told the Trilateral Commission behind closed doors. I was proud to be able to bring my readers a story about what our top diplomat says about an important issue when he didn’t think the cameras were rolling. I expected some pushback and anger from the State Department. I was surprised that so many people bought the spin that I somehow I had done something unethical.

If I had to do it all over again, I would do it in the exact same way. Event organizers and public officials should be forewarned. The public disclosure of this episode may make it harder for me to enter rooms the powerful people don’t want me in, maybe not, we’ll see. If it does, no worries, I’ve got plenty of other ways to get important and true information about our government to my readers. I don’t have to break the rules to break news.

I will admit to one ethical indiscretion in the reporting of these stories. While I was waiting for Kerry to get to the meeting, I partook of the lunch buffet and made myself a plate of pork loin, chicken, and a very nice rice pilaf. Professor Nye, my apologies. Please send me a bill.

Israel’s thought police have failed the US-sponsored peace process

By Ben White
May 03, 2014

In the end, the deadline came and went, and some people did not even notice. April 29, a day that had loomed on the horizon portending decisive developments for the US secretary of state John Kerry’s stricken peace process, brought neither breakthrough nor decisive failure.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been “paused”, and the US has very little to show for months of shuttle diplomacy, discussions, and proposals. On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli colonisation has continued apace. In nine months of formal talks, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government advanced construction for around 14,000 housing units in West Bank settlements.

Hours before the expiration of the April 29 deadline-that-wasn’t, Kerry was forced to release a statement not about the peace process per se, but about remarks he had made the previous Friday. Speaking at a closed forum with officials from the US, Europe, Russia and Japan, Kerry had warned that without a “two-state solution”, Israel would face a choice between “either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens” or “being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state”.

Kerry’s remarks, very similar to those made by a number of senior Israeli politicians and a host of liberal Zionist commentators, were denounced by pro-Israel groups in the US, who slammed the veteran diplomat for merely uttering the ‘A’ word.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference in Washington, D.C, on Mar. 3, 2014. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

AIPAC, the biggest and most hawkish group of the pro-Israel lobby, claimed that “any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate”, while the Anti-Defamation League said it was “disappointed” by Kerry’s remarks.

In his personal statement published on Monday, Kerry stressed his “commitment to Israel” and claimed that if he “could rewind the tape”, he “would have chosen a different word” to describe his “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”. (This is not the space to rehearse the arguments that Israel is already an apartheid state.)

The spectacle of a US secretary of state being castigated for merely mentioning something that might happen in the future, is a reminder that, in the words of The New Yorker journalist John Cassidy, “the one place you can’t have a reasonable discussion about Israel is Washington” [see above].

That is nothing new, of course, but there is a sense of desperation in the nature of the Israel lobby’s increasingly paranoid and bizarre attacks.

By way of further illustration, Israel lobby group J Street failed this week to gain admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. J Street is an organisation which supports Israel as a “Jewish state” and actively fights Palestine solidarity activism – but is liberal by the standards of the American pro-Israel lobby.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, analyst Chemi Shalev described “the emphatic repudiation of J Street” as “a milestone in the growing polarisation and fragmentation of the organised American-Jewish community”.

He went on: “In rejecting J Street, the conference chose exclusion over inclusion, intolerance over understanding, division over agreement, a bunker mentality over open mindedness. J Street’s unequivocal rejection will be interpreted as a victory for the ascendant forces of right-wing fanaticism who are now engaged in a perpetual purge of disloyal dissenters and deviants, in their own prejudiced eyes.”

As the US-managed peace process dies on its feet, leaving a status quo of an Israeli-controlled, de facto “one state” with Palestinians subjected to an apartheid regime, Israel’s supporters are furiously trying to enforce the limits of discourse. As Noam Sheizaf put it in +972 Magazine,

strong gatekeepers and lobby organisations police every aspect of the debate” (in the US).

By ‘police’ I mean they prevent any meaningful debate on issues, and only work on forbidden terms (apartheid, occupation and the likes) and ad hominem attacks, which, when successful, are turned into ‘guilt by association’ charges for maximum effect. The outcome is echoed by a media that is either not knowledgable or too careful or biased to challenge the rules of engagement.”

The lobby may “police” debate in the West, but in Israel itself it is not just a metaphor, with Palestinian citizens targeted by the authorities in a growing crackdown. A week ago, a Lod resident and Palestinian citizen of Israel was placed under house arrest by police because of a Facebook post criticising efforts to recruit Christian Palestinians into the Israeli army. Students demonstrating at Hebrew University this week against these renewed divide-and-conquer tactics were violently dispersed by police, and three were arrested.

Last October, a Palestinian student in Haifa spent a week in jail for social media posts critical of Israeli policies.

Meanwhile, more seriously still, the Palestinian journalist and activist, Majd Kayyal*, was recently detained by the Israeli authorities as he returned from attending a writers’ conference in Beirut. Initially kept in a cell without access to a lawyer, and his very detention under a security services-imposed gag order, Kayyal is still facing the possibility of prosecution for visiting an “enemy state”.

The suppression of dissent at home and abroad speaks of a regime that has nothing meaningful to contribute by way of a viable solution – nothing to offer except entrenched colonisation, and institutionalised discrimination. It becomes a vicious circle. As more western diplomats, NGO workers and observers despair of this fanatical rejection, so the backlash against even mealy-mouthed criticism intensifies.

In the absence of a plan for a way forward, the Israeli government and its diehard apologists lash out at critics with smears and legal threats abroad, or the tools of a security state when it comes to Palestinian citizens (not to mention, of course, the thousands of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories processed through military courts and languishing in Israeli jails).

Yet while Israel and the lobby worry about perception rather than policy, others are not standing still. For mixed motives and with uncertain chance of success, Fatah and Hamas are nevertheless making progress with regards to national unity. Mahmoud Abbas, undoubtedly thinking of his legacy after years of failure, is making tentative steps towards holding Israel to account in international forums.

Abroad, meanwhile, BDS campaigns grow in number and strength, as trade unionists, faith groups and cultural workers heed the Palestinian call for boycott, and recognise Israeli policies of segregation and military brutality for what they are. As for those sitting on the fence with regards to boycott, they will likely be persuaded of the strategy’s necessity in the absence of a peace process worthy of the name, and with an intransigent Israeli government that brooks no dissent at home or abroad.

Ben White is a journalist, researcher and author. A new edition of his book Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide is out now


*Majd Kayyal

Secret police hold Palestinian journalist in secret
Israeli gag orders bind US journalists – their choice

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