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Dan Liljenquist: U.S. friendship with Israel undermined by John Kerry's statements

Published: Thursday, May 1 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Secretary of State John Kerry told influential world leaders that unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolves into a two-state solution soon, Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state.” Kerry’s comments are inexcusable.

Jason Reed, Pool, Associated Press

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The Daily Beast broke the news ("Kerry Warns Israel," April 27) that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a closed-door meeting last Friday, told a room full of influential world leaders that unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolves into a two-state solution soon, Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state.” Kerry’s comments are inexcusable, revealing a shocking insensitivity to the cultural history of the Jewish people. He should have immediately and unequivocally apologized. Instead, he has made matters worse by quibbling over his wording while insisting on the sentiment.

Apartheid, which is described as an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression by one racial group over another, is very familiar to Jews. The collective history of the Jewish people, from the Roman sacking of Jerusalem to the Russian pogroms to the Nazi ghettos, is a history of racial oppression. How could Israelis NOT be offended by Kerry’s inflammatory rhetoric? Instead of helping to bring stability to the region, Kerry has made things worse.

What are the lessons we can learn from this international debacle?

First, when you are a world leader, nothing you say is private. You would think that folks in the Obama administration would have learned this lesson by now after several high-profile communications blunders, like President Obama’s much publicized “private” conversation with Vladimir Putin about how much more “flexibility” he would have on arms treaties after his re-election. There is simply no excuse for such mistakes.

Second, threatening an already threatened country is an act of provocation, not an overture for peace. Kerry made his apartheid comments as he insisted on his conclusion that a two-state outcome is the only acceptable long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. While Kerry may be correct on this point, he has publicly stated that should Israel not commit to such a solution soon, it would bolster the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Kerry’s comments amounted to a tacit endorsement of the BDS movement, one that, if successful, would lead to the collapse of the Israeli economy. Israelis are angry with such hardball tactics and they should be. You don’t treat friends this way.

Finally, implying that the peace process might be better served with different leaders at the table reveals a disdain for the democratic process that elected those leaders in the first place. Israel is not a vassal of the United States. It is an independent nation whose people live every day on the edge of war, surrounded by enemies who have sworn to exterminate them. Survival is not a hypothetical exercise, but a daily reality. While regime change seems to have become the hallmark of this administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East, it is unthinkable and unpardonable to suggest such a course in Israel. This is not how you treat an ally.

Twenty years ago, while a student in Jerusalem, I saw firsthand some of the sectarian violence that has entrenched Israelis and Palestinians against each other. One morning in the early spring, a Palestinian man murdered two Jewish schoolchildren by running them down with his truck while they waited for the school bus. Later that day, I was on a bus tour of Samaria with other students, when a mob of Israeli men blocked the road with burning tires, swarmed the Palestinian cars and taxis behind us, and smashed rocks through the windshields and windows. The retaliation was swift and brutal.

Some enmities are so deeply seated that they may take generations to unwind. Offhand references to something as heinous as apartheid are not helpful. We must not, in our eagerness to help, make matters worse.

Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.

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