Jerusalem: John Kerry`s warning that Israel could become an "apartheid state" if it doesn`t reach a peace deal with the Palestinians has set off an uproar from Israel`s allies in Washington.
The US secretary of state backtracked from his comments, but he had voiced an opinion that is frequently heard in Israel itself and tapped into a debate that has become increasingly heated.
Israel is a democracy whose Arab minority holds full citizenship rights. Israeli Arabs often complain of discrimination but nonetheless have reached senior positions in government, the judiciary, the foreign service, entertainment, sports, academia, medicine and even the military.
But it is the situation in the West Bank that sparks comparisons to apartheid. The territory is home to two populations - a Palestinian majority of some 2.4 million people and a Jewish settler minority of 350,000 - that are subject to two vastly different systems. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank as the heartland of an independent state.
Israel vehemently rejects any comparison to apartheid-era South Africa. While South Africa`s was a system rooted in race, Israel says the differences in the West Bank stem from legal issues and security needs. Its leaders have also endorsed the idea of establishing a Palestinian state.
"We see the system as something temporary until peace," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. "Israel seeks a solution of two states for two peoples. Israel seeks peace and reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors. We strive for such a solution and hope it will be possible to achieve."
After the uproar over his comments, Kerry said he should have used a word other than "apartheid" and said his remarks were only an expression of his firm belief that a two-state resolution is the only viable way to end the long-running conflict. And, he stressed, he does not believe Israel is, or is definitely on track to become, an "apartheid state."
In Israel, leftists have long claimed that aspects of life in the West Bank resemble apartheid. A number of prominent centrist figures, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, and the current chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, have invoked the apartheid analogy in their calls for peace agreement and change the status quo.