Secretary of state John Kerry said on Monday he had chosen the wrong word in describing Israel's potential future after coming under withering criticism for saying the Jewish state could become an "apartheid state" if it doesn't reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
In a statement released by the State Department, Kerry lashed out against "partisan political" attacks against him, but acknowledged his comments last week to a closed international forum could have been misinterpreted. He said he was and is a strong supporter of Israel, which he called a "vibrant democracy." He 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.
"I will not allow my commitment to Israel to be questioned by anyone, particularly for partisan, political purposes, so I want to be crystal clear about what I believe and what I don't believe," Kerry said after U.S. lawmakers and pro-Israel groups criticized him, with some demanding his resignation or at least an apology.
"First, Israel is a vibrant democracy and 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.
"Second, I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional, and 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," Kerry said.
On Sunday, The Daily Beast reported that Kerry had told a closed-door meeting on the Trilateral Commission in Washington on Friday that Israel risked becoming an "apartheid state" with two classes of citizens if negotiations to forge a peace deal fail and a two-state solution is not reached.
Kerry defended his general point, noting that numerous Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, have made similar points in the past. But, he added that "apartheid" is "a word best left out of the debate here at home."
Kerry invested significant time and energy last year into bringing the two sides to the negotiating table with the goal of reaching a deal in nine months. That deadline expires on Tuesday with the parties having failed to reach an accord, a less ambitious framework deal or even an agreement to extend the negotiations.
House GOP leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, said Kerry should apologise, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee described his use of the term as offensive. Another pro-Israel lobby said Kerry should resign, a call echoed by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in a speech on the Senate floor.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California was also critical of Kerry's comment, saying in a tweet that: "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and any linkage between Israel and apartheid is nonsensical and ridiculous."