While the US has not specifically said it would rule out engagement with a Palestinian technocratic government even if it does not include Hamas officials, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly in recent days he would not talk to a government even backed by Hamas unless the organization recognized Israel’s right to exist, stopped terror and accepted previous agreements. This difference is looming large as a potential point of friction between Jerusalem and Washington.
The New York Times quoted an Israeli official Monday as saying that Israel had a “specific commitment from the American administration” backing this position, and that this commitment was given during Obama’s first term in office and restated during his second term.
Over the past few days, however, administration officials have left the impression among some that the US might reconcile itself to a Palestinian technocratic government in which Hamas is not sitting around the cabinet table but also has not accepted the three internationally recognized principles.
The official’s comments to the Times came after the Daily Beast website reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a closed-door meeting with influential world leaders on Friday, warned that if Israel did not make peace soon it could become “an apartheid state.” It is very rare for senior American officials to use the loaded term “apartheid” in relation to Israel.
According to the Daily Beast, Kerry also told the Trilateral Commission that a failure of the peace talks might lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence and that a change in Israeli or Palestinian leadership could make progress more feasible. He also again lashed out at settlement construction, but said both sides shared the blame for the impasse of the talks.
The nine-month deadline set in July for concluding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement ends on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the State Department on Monday would not deny that Kerry suggested Israel might ultimately become an apartheid state should peace talks fail.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not confirm “the accuracy of comments made at a private meeting,” she told reporters on Monday.
“A two-state solution is the only way to have two nations, and two peoples, living side-by-side in peace and security,” Psaki said. “That continues to be his [Kerry’s] belief.”
She emphasized that Kerry did not believe Israel was currently conducting apartheid; on the contrary, he believed the Jewish state was currently “a vibrant democracy with equal rights for its citizens.” But on the use of the term she noted that “many officials have used similar phrases” to describe potential futures.
Kerry has issued a series of remarks throughout the nine months of peace talks that have irked his Israeli counterparts. Last month he suggested that a deterioration of the talks was due to settlement activity in east Jerusalem. The month before, he suggested that Israel would face a reinvigorated BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement should talks fail, and last November he seemed to threaten Israel with a third intifada if a deal was not concluded.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, numerous officials in the Obama administration have declined to either defend or condemn the most recent remark attributed to him. Members of his team believe that kernels of truth exist in his controversial statements – that should a two-state solution not come to pass, efforts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy might become bolder and Israel’s Jewish population might come to rule a majority of Arabs and Palestinians in its borders.
The secretary’s communications staff has made a concerted effort to discipline his message: The State Department maintains that without peace Israel will struggle to remain both Jewish and democratic. But Kerry has on several occasions diverged from that message, to the frustration of his aides.
Observers of the US-Israeli relationship state that these types of comments undermine the peace process. On the one hand, they say, they undermine his status with the Israelis as a negotiator, and on the other hand they give the Palestinians hope that if they just hold out, Israel will be blamed for the failure of the talks and be badly isolated.
All major American Jewish or pro-Israel organizations, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, weighed in on the reported comments with a rare statement released on Monday.
“Any suggestion that Israel is, or is at risk of becoming, an apartheid state is offensive and inappropriate,” the AIPAC statement read. “Israel is the lone stable democracy in the Middle East, and protects the rights of minorities regardless of ethnicity of religion.”
Meanwhile, US peace envoy Martin Indyk has left the region as – according to Psaki – the sides are at a point “where a pause is needed.” She said Indyk had no immediate plans to return.
In a CNN interview on Sunday, Netanyahu talked about a pause, saying: “I called on my cabinet ministers today and I said we’re going to take time out now for a reassessment and try to figure out alternative paths to peace.”
Officials in Jerusalem said the government would now wait and see if the Fatah- Hamas agreement is consummated before declaring what it would do next.