State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stumbled Monday when asked to acknowledge the offensiveness of Secretary of State John Kerry's warning that Israel could become an "apartheid state" if no two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was found soon.
"I think his meaning of any comments he makes is his support for a two-state solution and his belief that it's hard to see how the parties can prosper without it," she said.
Kerry raised eyebrows when it was reported he made the remarks to a group of world leaders Friday. The Daily Beast wrote:
Senior American officials have rarely, if ever, used the term "apartheid" in reference to Israel, and President Obama has previously rejected the idea that the word should apply to the Jewish state. Kerry's use of the loaded term is already rankling Jewish leaders in America—and it could attract unwanted attention in Israel, as well.
Associated Press reporter Matt Lee pressed her on the comments, asking if any other American officials had used such a loaded term during a negotiation, comparing the Jewish state to employing the racial segregation that occurred in South Africa.
"Well, Matt, he certainly didn't say ‘is,'" Psaki replied.
"You're saying that the secretary does not believe that. Can I ask you why he does not share the views of those pro-Palestinians?" he asked.
"Because he believes that Israel is a vibrant democracy with equal rights for its citizens," Psaki said.
Lee kept on, however, asking if the State Department understood that not every person living under Israeli authority is an Israeli citizen and that, since many Palestinian people view Israel as being similar to an "apartheid" state, whether Kerry realized he'd angered two groups of people simultaneously.
"The pro-Israel people are furious that he would even deign to utter the word — the "A" word — even if it was referring to something happening in the future, or possibly happening in the future," Lee said. "The other side is upset that the secretary is not using the "A" word to describe how Israel is right now. Given that circumstance, you acknowledge that that's the situation, right? … Was using the word smart? Does the secretary understand that using a loaded term like that is going to cause him a lot of grief?"
Psaki, visibly annoyed at the line of questioning, replied shortly.
"I'm just not going to give any analysis on that, Matt," she said.
MATT LEE: I've got to go back to the secretary's comments on Friday — to come at this from two ways. One, do you at least, or does he at least acknowledge that using a term like apartheid is offensive to a lot of Israelis and pro-Israel supporters?
JEN PSAKI: Well, I think his meaning of any comments he makes is his support for a two-state solution and his belief that it's hard to see how the parties can prosper without it.
LEE: Right. Well, I understand. But using this word, the "A word," I guess we can call it, is kind of a touch-button issue for many in the pro-Israel community, and many Israelis. Is the secretary aware of that?
PSAKI: Matt, I think many officials have used similar phrases that have been reported, and he's aware of that as well.
LEE: Then — you mean many Israeli officials. How about American officials, who are supposed to be — you know, you guys are supposed to be the neutral — you know, the arbiter, the honest broker here. Are you aware of any other current — or an American official who has used apartheid while they were in the middle or still trying to — maybe near the end of a negotiation?
PSAKI: Well, Matt, he certainly didn't say "is." He said — reports are that —
LEE: Right, I'm not saying he said that it is. We'll get to that in a second, because that's the other side of the coin here. But he did use the word, unless I'm mistaking you — your explanation. Does he understand that using that word — whether he said "is," "was," "may be," "could be," "definitely will be," "definitely won't be" — that that is a loaded term that's going to cause a long of angst and a lot of, you now, indignation, whether one believes that that indignation is faux or not?
PSAKI: We're certainly all familiar with the term, but I don't have any other commentary for all of you on his —
LEE: All right. From the other side of the — from the other perspective ve here, which is the Palestinian perspective, there are a lot of people who are pro-Palestinian who would argue that in fact Israel is now an apartheid state. You're saying that you don't — that the secretary does not believe that. Can I ask you why he does not share the views of those — of those pro-Palestinians?
PSAKI: Because he believes that Israel is a vibrant democracy with equal rights for its citizens.
LEE: Right, but it's also — it is also an occupying power, correct?
PSAKI: We're all familiar with circumstances in the region.
LEE: OK. And people under — and people — and people — not every person who lives under Israeli authority is an Israeli citizen with equal rights, is that correct?
PSAKI: Matt, we are all — we're all familiar with the reasons why we're — we've been — he has been so — putting so much effort into pursuing a peace process. But that doesn't change his view on Israel currently.
LEE: Right, but you do accept that there are people who live under Israeli administration, live under Israeli authority right now, who do not have equal rights, correct?
PSAKI: I don't think I'm going to analyze this further.
LEE: Well, I mean, look, the secretary is getting it from both sides here. The pro-Israel people are furious that he would even deign to utter the word — the "A" word even if it was referring to something happening in the future, or possibly happening in the future. The other side is upset that the secretary is not using it — using the "A" word to describe how Israel is right now. Given that — given that circumstance — you acknowledge that that's the situation, right?
PSAKI: Mmm hmm.
Q: OK. Was using the word smart? Does the secretary understand that using a loaded term like that is going to cause him a lot of grief?
PSAKI: I'm just not going to give any analysis on that, Matt.