US Secretary of State John Kerry

US Secretary of State John Kerry. Photo: Reuters

Washington: US Secretary of State John Kerry defended himself against critics angered by reports that he had warned in a private setting that Israel risked becoming an "apartheid" state.

"If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe my firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two-state solution," Mr Kerry said on Monday. The deadline on his goal of establishing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is set to expire on Tuesday.

The drumbeat of criticism about his remarks grew steadily throughout the day, fed by social media. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike chastised him, and senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, called for his resignation.

Mr Kerry has "proven himself unsuitable for his position", Senator Cruz said in remarks from the Senate floor, "before any further harm is done to our alliance with Israel, he should offer President Obama his resignation."

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, called Mr Kerry's statement "deeply troubling." The Anti-Defamation League called the comment "disappointing".

The remarks were first reported by The Daily Beast on Sunday after a reporter for the website slipped into a meeting of world leaders and taped the event.  

"A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens - or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state," Mr Kerry said, according to The Daily Beast.

On Monday, Mr Kerry struck back at any question of his commitment to the US-Israeli alliance.

"I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone, particularly for partisan, political purposes," he said.

"I do not believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one," he said. "Anyone who knows anything about me knows that without a shred of doubt."

Kerry said his goal is a "two-state solution that results in a secure Jewish state and a prosperous Palestinian state, and I've actually worked for it.  

"In the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves, or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve," he said.

Mr Kerry also observed that both Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have invoked the spectre of apartheid, the system of racial segregation and inequality enshrined in South African law for decades, but said it was  "a word best left out of the debate here at home".

 

The remarks' disclosure coincided with Holocaust remembrance day in Israel. Officials close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to respond, but there was an angry reaction from the Yesha Council, which represents Israeli settlers living in the West Bank.

"His equation of the democratic state of Israel and apartheid South Africa is a new low in American diplomacy and an insult to the people of Israel and South Africa," said the council's chief foreign envoy, Dani Dayan.

"Had Secretary Kerry come to Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], he would have learned about the potential for coexistence without the need for incendiary comments. The time has come for the American administration to quietly exit this failed process."

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which supported Mr Kerry's peace efforts, said his comments were "not helpful".

However, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive council, said that Mr Kerry had erred only in suggesting that an apartheid system lay in the future.

"He is using the word in the future tense, but [the Israelis] have already created an apartheid system in the West Bank," she said. "They don't like it when people use accurate terms to describe what they are doing. When you build roads for settlers that no one else can use, or have two separate legal systems, what else can you call it?"

US President Barack Obama, who has supported Mr Kerry's shuttle diplomacy, has shied away from using "apartheid" in an Israeli context. "It's emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it's not what I believe," he said during the 2008 US presidential election campaign.

Bloomberg; Telegraph, London; agencies