White House officials know Israel is an apartheid state, but they can’t say so

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  April 26, 2023

Beltway scholar Mark Lynch says even the White House understands Israel practices apartheid, even if it won’t say so publicly, because Palestinian intellectuals have led the way in shifting the foreign policy establishment.

Even in the White House officials know that Israel practices apartheid, but they can’t say so publicly, they have to cling to the two-state paradigm, says a Beltway scholar, Marc Lynch, who co-authored a breakthrough report in Foreign Affairs using the word apartheid to describe Israeli rule.

Lynch said that that report was heavily influenced by Palestinian experts, who helped break a Washington “taboo” on saying apartheid. The Palestinians are Yousef Munayyer, Tareq Baconi, and Noura Erakat.

For many years, Palestinians have said, Israel imposes apartheid. In time, public figures such as Jimmy Carter and Betty McCollum and Rashida Tlaib and Jim Klutznick (of Americans for Peace Now) echoed that view. Then two years ago a number of human rights groups, notably Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, joined the chorus with reports labeling Israeli rule “apartheid.” They were followed by the Carnegie Endowment and the young Jewish group IfNotNow, and so on.

This month two important shoes dropped. Foreign Affairs published its paper on the “One State Reality” by four mainstream figures using the word apartheid. And now a respected poll reveals that 44 percent of Democrats say that Israel is “a state with segregation similar to apartheid” (in keeping with Gallup’s poll of last month showing way more Democrats are sympathetic to Palestinians than Israel).

The authors of the Foreign Affairs paper charted the growing awareness of apartheid in a D.C. panel earlier this month, launching the book of essays they have co-edited.

Lynch said the “cascade” of experts’ reports on apartheid has reached policymakers, even in the White House:

There’s much less of disconnect than you might think. The deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel Palestinian affairs [Hady Amr] was here at the Elliott School last week and he knows all of these things, and I would say that everybody in the White House knows all these things, they all know these things, but they don’t act on them for various other reasons, because of political considerations, because of structural constraints and that sort of thing. I don’t think this is a knowledge issue. People [who spend their lives working on policy] are not unaware of the one state reality. It’s more the sense of paralysis and impossibility of finding anything else. Hence clinging to the idea of a two state solution in order to avoid having to come up with something different. That’s why I think there’ s more stasis in the policy debate than there is in the academic and civil society debate right now.

Editor Shibley Telhami, who has worked as a policymaker, said that the death of the two-state solution is now an accepted fact in official circles, but officials can’t say as much.

I know both worlds, and the policy makers are not as detached as we assume they are. I know a number of high level people in government who have said, that it’s too late for two states, yet they’re advocating two states publicly. They’re not going to take that on, they’re not going to change the paradigm, it’s too costly, it’s not a high priority issue, no one is going to lead from within.

Just as the end of the peace process was a factor in Human Rights Watch declaring Israel an apartheid state in 2021, so it motivated these authors, co-editor Michael Barnett said:

We thought the peace process died certainly in the early 2000s. If the peace process does not exist, it leaves you with very few options in terms of what to think about what Israel/Palestine is… It really is based on control.”

When the four published their piece in Foreign Affairs, Lynch said he expected pushback, but there hasn’t been much. Because the acceptance of apartheid has been “sudden and rapid”:

It’s been quite interesting to see the response… We all anticipated quite a bit of fireworks. In fact that has not happened, because everyone now pretty much agrees with us, which was certainly not the case five years ago. And that to me is one of the most interesting puzzles, is, How can you have intellectual and policy stagnation for decades and decades, followed by a very sudden and rapid intellectual and discursive change.

Lynch pointed to the inclusion of Palestinians as a factor in that change. He cited Munayyer’s article in Foreign Affairs in 2019, titled “There Will be a One State Solution” and said until that piece, the foreign policy establishment of the United States regarded the idea of one-state as “toxic.” Today the “One State Reality” book is ahead of the curve of Washington and mainstream academia, Lynch said, but “we were well behind the curve of Palestinian intellectuals.”

Michael Barnett described the “difficult” and “incredible intellectual and emotional journey” of making the book as a Jewish person with deep involvement in the Israel issue. But he tried to be analytical, not emotional, in describing the reality. Israel has never had clear borders, and its occupation is far from temporary after 56 years.

“The language of occupation seemed awkward and probably a misnomer. At least back in the post-World War Two period when international legal authorities began to draft doctrines of occupation, they never had in mind something like this… Occupation was supposed to be temporary, but here is something quite permanent or so it seems.”

Barnett said that understanding led to the idea that Israel exercises “coercive control” over subjects in ways the world does not accept:

“The land that we’re talking about today, which Israel claims control over– that’s not legally recognized by any other state, as we speak…. We are now talking about a state where there are different levels of membership. Full members are Jewish Israelis.

But it’s simple, and Israel is doubling down:

“To simplify things, there are just two classes of people in this new state. There are Jewish Israelis, and then there’s everybody else. And if you have any doubt about it, look at the Basic Law from a few years ago. And look at the slew of bills that are coming down the pike in the Knesset. It makes it clear that there are two classes of resident.”

Israel has ceased to be a liberal democracy, it’s about “Jewish supremacy,” there’s no way around it. Barnett said:

For the longest time Israel was understood as a liberal democracy. And it had shared values with the west on those grounds. But Israel… has ceased to be a liberal democracy… Israel is a state that is built for, by and about Israeli Jews, that’s what it’s about. It’s about Jewish supremacy. That’s a hard word to actually evoke. But I don’t think there’s any way around it. This was a state that was intended to be for Jews and if it’s going to be a Jewish state then there are going to be those who are not full members, and it also means to preserve the Jewish state means to preserve systematic discrimination against those who are non-Jews.

The apartheid frame:

Where does it leave us? The one [idea] that’s clearly being evoked more and more, is apartheid. It may not be an exact analogy, but it’s pretty close. And so if in fact it’s an apartheid state, then one has to question… where is it then in relationship to other kinds of states [and it] imposes a slew of difficult and complicated challenges, certainly for the U.S. It was one thing to say we have shared values with a liberal democracy. It’s very difficult to make that same statement once you cast the frame as apartheid.

Nathan Brown says everyone knows it now:

This isn’t news. There are political actors in the region who have oriented themselves around this [one-state] reality increasingly over the last decade… Now everybody’s noticing, that’s what is new.

Lynch said that naming apartheid says to some that it cannot possibly survive. He disagrees:

I see nothing in history to suggest that’s true. Injustice can survive a tremendously long time. Once the initial impact of the apartheid level sinks in, politics moves on, nothing necessarily changes… People can live with an extraordinary amount of hypocrisy and evil in their lives, so long as it does not inconvenience them. and the power in the world today is not one which is leading toward greater liberalism or greater justice…by naming it…it might simply be put on like a fine dinner jacket, and become the new reality, and that would be quite tragic.

Barnett disagreed. He said the discourse will force change. Israel is already in freefall from elites seeking to emigrate:

“You can’t go on as normal once you say that it’s an apartheid state. I think we learned that in South Africa. As a consequence, things are going to change globally… This creates economic instability, as we see in Israel. I have so many Israeli friends who are now applying for a passport elsewhere, who now want an exit option… What happens when those providing the gold decide to leave?

Barnett described apartheid as a “taboo” term that is no longer taboo:

Apartheid has been such a taboo language to talk about Israel that people get harrassed for using it. But at the end of the day, apartheid is a legal language, apartheid is about international law, and it is about systematic discriminations by one group of another group based on any number of considerations, but largely around… race.

The racism of Israel that Palestinians have long identified is now dawning on others. Barnett described his own awakening to the idea of “Jewish supremacy”:

For those who have supported Israel– let’s just recognize up front it was created in 1948 as a state of the Jews…. We know that since 1948 that Arab Israelis now Palestinian Israelis were systematically discriminated against. That I think is undisputable. Then when you widen that to include the so called territories… That discrimination is simply about Jews against others. And as we say today, and [under] this current Knesset tt will become further institutionalized, in that Jews have more rights than non-Jews, and it’s designed to maintain Jewish power. I don’t think that’s controversial. It may be difficult to hear in those terms, but it is about Jewish supremacy. You can’t call it a liberal democracy… But acknowledge, that whatever you call it it has to include practices of discrimination, by Jews against non-Jews. That’s undebatable.

The Jewish community is splintering because of this awareness. Barnett said that a “great number of Jewish Americans” are becoming indifferent to Israel, to the point they “actually don’t want anything to do with it anymore.”

Lastly, but very importantly: Barnett said as we move into the one-state reality, Americans need to rethink the nature of Palestinian violence. He described attacks on civilians as terrorism but said that the decolonization movement showed that violence directed against conscripted forces and “not against civilians” is legitimate. Washington has a long way to go on that one.

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006