Secretary of State John Kerry’s apology for his use of the word apartheid to describe Israel’s future in the absence of peace has done nothing to lessen the impact of this slur. The secretary’s attempt to walk back his remarks was long on umbrage about anyone questioning his dubious pro-Israel bona fides and short on actual contrition. The aftermath of a taped speech in which he uses a misleading attempt to cast blame for the failure of his peace initiative equally between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is not the most appropriate moment to boast of his commitment to the Jewish state, especially when he has damned it as heading inevitably to racist tyranny if it doesn’t do as he says.
But though the Daily Beast’s scoop about Kerry’s speech to the Trilateral Commission has put the administration on the defensive for the moment, the statement has served the purpose of Israel’s critics since it has given them the opportunity to defend his assertion even as the secretary distanced himself from it. The notion that what he said is an unpalatable truth has become a piece of liberal conventional wisdom even though its premise is demographically dubious and rendered nonsensical when one considers that unless one includes the population of Gaza—which is already an independent Palestinian state in all but name—the day will probably never dawn when Arabs outnumber Jews in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel not only, as Kerry conceded in his apology, is not now and has no intention of ever becoming an apartheid state. The entire discussion is specious and tells us more about the effort to delegitimize the Jewish state than it does about Israel’s character. The real damage here is that Kerry has breathed new life into an old canard that neither facts nor logic seems to have the power to extinguish.
But for all the effort expended on this controversy, an even more important one is looming over Obama administration’s Middle East policy in the wake of the collapse of the peace talks. By entering into a unity coalition with the Hamas terrorist movement, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas put President Obama on the spot. The president has repeatedly pledged that the U.S., like Israel, will not deal with Hamas, at least until it repudiates its genocidal charter, recognizes Israel, and commits itself to peace. That ought to mean the end of all U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority (something mandated by law) as well as putting an end to negotiations that are aimed at empowering the PA. But no one in Israel should be taking the fulfillment of that pledge for granted.
It is theoretically possible that Hamas might renounce its charter or pass some sort of measure that will be falsely interpreted by peace advocates as a sign of its new moderation. But since Hamas’s political capital within Palestinian society rests primarily on its ability to pose as a more rabidly anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish force than Abbas’s Fatah, the chances of them being willing to engage in this sort of ruse are fairly slim. But so long as Abbas is the front man for this coalition, the administration may be tempted to stick to its characterization of him as a man of peace despite the fact that he deliberately chose to make peace with Hamas rather than with Israel. Thus, it is entirely possible that President Obama and Kerry may choose to treat the unity deal as irrelevant to the peace process.
If the administration does violate its long-held principles about working with an entity compromised by its terrorist connection, it will mark a clear turning point not only in the U.S.-Israel relationship but also in America’s attempts to combat Islamist terrorism. Though its apologists sometimes speak of Hamas as having evolved into a government in Gaza and being ready for peace, the U.S. has always rightly drawn a bright line between even the most dubious of governments in the Middle East and open practitioners of terror. Erasing or even blurring that line will render Obama’s avowed hard line against terrorism meaningless.
If the administration should choose to walk down this road toward recognition of Hamas, it will do so to the cheers of the foreign-policy establishment and liberal mainstream media that have always chafed against the idea that Hamas was beyond the pale. But if it does, it should also expect that Congress as well as a united pro-Israel community would make them pay a high political price for this betrayal. This is not a battle Obama wants to be fighting in an already difficult midterm elections year. If Abbas is counting on the president to risk some of his scarce political capital on such a cause, then both he and Kerry may have badly miscalculated. But should the Palestinian alliance last into 2015 with a lame duck president already feeling he has little left to lose, then it is entirely possible that Obama could make Kerry’s apartheid flap look like a picnic compared to a decision to recognize Hamas.