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John Kerry

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Israel: The “A” Word

By Gwynne Dyer

Hillary Clinton would never have used the word when she was US Secretary of State, because she still has presidential ambitions. John Kerry, the current Secretary of State, has no further ambitions in that direction, which may be why he dared to use the words “apartheid” and “Israel” in the same sentence. Or maybe he just didn’t realise that the world would hear about it.

Kerry spoke last week to a group of high-ranking officials from the US, Europe and Japan known as the Trilateral Commission about the failure of his year-long attempt to revive the “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinians. Somebody at the meeting secretly recorded his comments, which were published by the Daily Beast on Monday, and suddenly he was in very hot water.

What he said was that the long-sought “two-state solution” was the only real alternative to a “unitary” Israeli-ruled state that included all the territory between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea – and ruled over millions of Palestinians in the territories that have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.

Those Palestinians, most of whom cannot remember a time when they did not live under Israeli control, have no political rights within Israel. The two-state solution, under negotiation off and on for the past twenty years, would give them a state of their own, but most people had despaired some time ago of getting Israel to agree to an independent Palestine.

Kerry had not, so he was surprised and disappointed when his efforts came to naught. That was why he blurted out the truth that American politicians are never supposed to acknowledge. He said that without the two-state solution, “a unitary [Israeli] state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class [Palestinian] citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”

It was clumsily phrased, but the basic idea is common in both Israeli and Palestinian political discourse. Even if Israel never formally annexes the occupied territories, it has been building Jewish settlements all over them for decades, and the Palestinian inhabitants are effectively controlled by the Israeli government.

If this situation continues indefinitely, and the Palestinians must live out their lives as mere residents without no political rights, then they are in the same position as the black South Africans who lived all their lives under white rule without citizenship or the vote. That was the very essence of apartheid.

Alternatively, of course, Israel might grant them citizenship and the vote: that’s what happened when apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994. But there are already a great many Palestinians living under Israeli rule, and their higher birth rate would make them a majority in in that “unitary” Israel in less than a generation. That might or might not be a state where Jews were happy to live, but it would definitely no longer be a Jewish state.

That’s all Kerry was saying: if you don’t accept the two-state solution then willy-nilly you get the one-state solution, in one of two flavours – an apartheid state in which the great majority of the actual citizens are Jews and the Palestinians have no voice in how they are ruled, or a more broadly defined state in which everybody is a citizen but Jews are no longer the majority.

Many Israel senior politicians who favour the two-state solution, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, have made exactly this point, even using that same inflammatory word, “apartheid”, to underline the gravity of the choice. Senior Palestinian politicians talk about it all the time. But senior American politicians are not allowed to talk like that about Israel.

State Department officials tried to defend their boss’s comments for a few hours, but as the firestorm of protest by American Zionist organisations grew the Obama administration realised that Kerry had to be forced to apologise for speaking the truth. The story that they took him down into the White House basement and beat him with rubber hoses is probably untrue, but on Tuesday he recanted his heresy.

“I do not believe,” Kerry said, “nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one.” Well, of course not. It’s not an apartheid state now because the non-citizen status of the Palestinians for the past 47 years is technically only temporary, pending the creation of their own state.

And Israel has no intention of ever meeting the technical definition of an apartheid state, either, because that would be a public-relations disaster. However, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems convinced that he can avoid that outcome simply by hanging on to the occupied territories indefinitely but never formally annexing them, and many Israelis agree with him.

They might even be right, but John Kerry doesn’t think so. Or at least, he didn’t until his own people worked him over a bit.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That’s…Israel”)

The Magnificent Kerry

4 February 2014

The Magnificent Kerry

By Gwynne Dyer

John Kerry has been US Secretary of State for precisely one year, and he has already 1) rescued President Obama from his ill-considered promse to bomb Syria if it crossed the “red line” and used poison gas; 2) opened serious negotiations with Iran on its alleged attempt to build nuclear weapons; and 3) taken on the job of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Getting Obama off the hook was useful, and may yet lead to the US ending its support for the insurgency in Syria, which at this point would probably be the least bad outcome. Opening negotiations with Iran was long overdue, and makes the nightmare prospect of an American or a joint US-Israeli air attack on Iran daily less likely. But even King Solomon and Avicenna (Ibn Sina), sitting jointly in judgement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could not broker a peace accord there.

Kerry is indefatigable. He has been to Israel/Palestine eleven times in the past year, and spent as much as a hundred hours face to face with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or their close advisers. Unlike all the previous “brokers”, he has been astoundingly discreet: not a hint of what has been said in private has leaked into the public domain. And yet there is almost no hope of a real peace deal.

If persistence in the face of all the odds were enough, Kerry would be the man who finally made it happen. (Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon recently complained that his approach is “obsessive and messianic.”) But Kerry has no leverage: he has to rely on the desire of the two leaders to make the “peace process” work, and it just isn’t there; not, at least, on any terms that both would find acceptable.

The list of deal-breakers includes almost every topic under discussion: the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, whether Jerusalem can be the joint capital of Israel and Palestine, whether Israel can maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes, and Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise it as an explicitly Jewish state.

This last demand, which was only raised in the past couple of years, seems deliberately designed to be unacceptable to the Palestinians. Not only are they required to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli state (which they have already done), but also to give their blessing to the ethnic and religious character of that state.

It is not normal in diplomacy for one state to comment upon the internal arrangements of another, let alone to give them its public support. Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally and supporter, does not officially recognise it as a “Jewish state.” The Israeli demand is an attempt to rub the Palestinians’ noses in their defeat, and why would you set out to do that if you really wanted a deal?

The Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” however rooted in natural justice, is equally self-defeating in practice. Everybody knows that a peace deal must mean compensation for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, not a general right of return to what is now Israel, for that really would mean the end of the “Jewish state.” But no Palestinian leader has ever dared to say so out loud.

So why, then, has John Kerry embarked on his quixotic mission to make the “peace process” work? It has been effectively dead for at least a dozen years, although it remains unburied because the pretense that it is still alive allows everybody to avoid hard decisions. But Kerry, with his nine-month deadline to achieve a comprehensive “final-status agreement” (which expires in April), is taking it seriously.

His own explanation is lyrical but opaque: “I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.” But the business about “making history” – that, perhaps, is sincere. Kerry has had a long and interesting career as a senator, and even took a shot at the presidency, but this is probably his last big job, and he wants to make his mark.

As the reality of what he is up against strikes home, he has scaled back his ambitions a good deal. For some months now he has been talking about a more modest “framework” deal by April that would establish a set of basic principles for further talks. Such deals commit nobody to anything, and are therefore a popular way of pretending to make progress, but he’ll be lucky to get even that.

The French general Pierre Bosquet, watching the suicidal charge of the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854, said: “It is magnificent, but it is not war. It’s madness.”

Kerry’s foredoomed quest for a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is magnificent too, in its own peculiar way, but it’s not diplomacy. It’s hubris.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“It is…deal”; and “As the…that”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



The Truth about Gaffes

2 November 2006

The Truth about Gaffes

By Gwynne Dyer

A “gaffe” is a true statement that outrages the hypocrites, who then mobilise to shut the truth-teller up. The most common gaffes are about politics and religion, because those are the areas where the level of hypocrisy is highest. Which explains John Kerry’s problem last Tuesday, or why Muazzez Ilmiye Cig almost went to jail in Turkey on Wednesday.

John Kerry inadvertently spoke the truth about why some people end up in the US armed forces while others do not. Speaking to students in California, he said: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard…you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Cue mass outrage. How dare Kerry suggest that people might be in the US army because they lacked the education for softer, safer, better-paying jobs, or indeed might have joined precisely to get that missing education? No, they’re all there solely because they are patriots, and anybody who says differently will be spanked soundly and sent to bed without supper.

Senator Kerry issued a grovelling apology (“I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform”), and cancelled any further campaigning in support of Democratic Party candidates in the mid-term elections, returning to Washington in order not to be a “distraction.” Too late, of course.

The Republicans leaped on Kerry’s remark as a golden opportunity to paint the Democrats as unpatriotic and disloyal to the armed forces (even though most senior Bush administration officials, including the president, the vice-president, and the national security adviser, successfully avoided service in Vietnam). And yet Kerry’s remark was entirely true.

Ordinary soldiers are not the “scum of the earth,” as Wellington called the British infantry who won a dozen battles against the French for him in Spain, but they are definitely not the “creme de la creme” in educational terms. Most of them are there because it was their best remaining option.

The Pentagon’s own figures show that only 10 percent of American enlisted troops have any post-secondary education, whereas 56 percent of the general population does. It has been true since Sargon of Akkad created the world’s first regular army over four thousand years ago: it’s mostly poor people who join the army, because rich people have better options. The military themselves recognise this in their recruiting ads, which stress the opportunities for further education during or after military service. It’s obvious, but you’re not allowed to say it plainly in public.

More admirable than Kerry, because her gaffe was deliberate and she refused to apologise, is Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, a 92-year-old Turkish archaeologist who said bluntly that hijab — “Islamic” head-scarves that hide women’s hair — are not Islamic at all, but a 5,000-year-old Middle Eastern tradition.

The great thing about being 92 — one of the few good things about being 92, apart from not being dead yet — is that you no longer have to care about your career or what people think. As one of the world’s leading experts on Sumer, the first civilisation, Cig published thirteen books and dozens of scholarly articles on her subject and earned great respect within that small community. But then she published a book last year about her own convictions (“My Reactions as a Citizen”) and all hell broke loose in Turkey.

All she said was that the head-scarf, now a badge of Muslim identity for devout women in Turkey and elsewhere, was actually first worn five thousand years ago by temple priestesses in Sumeria whose job was to initiate young people into sex. They were not prostitutes; only the daughters of the rich and influential got temple jobs. So gradually the wearing of head-scarves came to designate “respectable” women; that is to say rich women, not peasants and slaves. The fashion persisted down to Greek and Roman times, and was picked up by the Arabs when they conquered Syria in the generation after the Prophet.

Well, I could have told her that. I grew up a Catholic in prelapsarian Newfoundland, and the nuns who taught my sisters wore the full Sumerian gear. Until a couple of decades ago, Catholic nuns still dressed like any respectable Middle Eastern woman (of any religion) of two or three thousand years ago. Muazzez Ilmiye Cig was just stating the obvious historical truth. A serious gaffe.

She is not an innocent abroad. She has been an activist in feminist causes since the 1930s, and she recently wrote an open letter to Emine Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister’s wife, urging her not to wear a head-scarf in public. “She can wear whatever she likes at home, but as the wife of the prime minister, she cannot wear a cross or the head-scarf,” Cig told Vatan, a popular daily.

So Islamist lawyers brought charges against her for “inciting hatred and enmity among the people,” and she ended up in court facing the prospect of one and a half years in prison. But twenty-five lawyers showed up to defend her for free, and the state prosecutor himself asked the judge to drop the charges, and in half an hour she walked out of the court a free woman, cheered by the crowd that had come to support her. The hypocrites do not always win.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 12. (“Senator…course”; “Ordinary…option”;and “She…daily”)