In February 2010, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned failure to make peace with the Palestinians would cause Israel either to lose its Jewish majority or to become an "apartheid state."
He meant that without a two-state solution, Israel would face two impossible choices: Either give citizenship to millions of Palestinians, who would soon become a majority in Israel, or continue to control the lives of millions of Arabs who lack basic rights.
Barak's remarks caused no political hysteria in Israel because they reflected painful reality; other Israeli politicians and pundits have said the same before and after.
Yet when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dared to utter the A-word (apartheid) last week, Israeli and American Jewish leaders slammed him. Like Barak, he warned of the threat Israel faces once the two-state option vanishes: "A unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens," he said, or "destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state."
The criticism Kerry faced was so harsh, he felt compelled to issue a humiliating apology, even as his nine-month effort to broker a peace deal came to a failed closure. Instead of maligning Kerry, the critics should have taken his and Barak's warning to heart.
Within its 1967 boundaries, Israel is a vibrant democracy, and Arab citizens of Israel have the vote. But on the West Bank, around 2.5 million Palestinians live under a totally different system. They can't vote for a national government (their Palestinian Authority has minimal powers), while their physical movements are controlled by Israeli military checkpoints.
Most West Bank land, along with water usage, imports and exports, is controlled by Israel. (In Gaza, with 1.5 million people, Israel still controls the air, sea and almost all land exits -- including the movement of goods and people.)
The ceaseless expansion of Israeli settlements all over the West Bank, along with exclusive settler roads and fences, divides Palestinian areas into disconnected cantons that superficially resemble the former black Bantustans in South Africa. So even if Israel's situation differs from South Africa's and lacks the racial laws that defined that country's apartheid system, some parallels can't be avoided. One group dominates and controls another, which lacks political rights.
As then-prime minister Ehud Olmert warned in 2007, the collapse of the two-state solution means Israel likely will "face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights." Indeed, many younger Palestinians want to turn away from failed talks about two states to a campaign for full citizenship inside one state.
A one-state solution is a non-starter: The Middle East is a communal region in which Israel Jews and Palestinians both want their own country and would resist sharing control. But a one-man, one-vote campaign could resonate with Europeans and in developing countries and accelerate the global "boycott, divestment and sanctions" (BDS) movement that calls for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
Kerry's critics clearly were worried that the use of the A-word would advance the BDS campaign. But dumping on Kerry won't resolve the problem, nor will playing the blame game of whose fault it is that peace talks ended. Rather, those who care about Israel's future should take a hard look at the facts on the ground.
Nothing has furthered comparisons of the Palestinian situation to South Africa more than the Israeli government's promotion of Jewish settlement on the West Bank. The current settlement grid was originally advocated by the late Israeli leader Ariel Sharon as a means to ensure long-term control of the territory. Settlers live by different laws, have full Israeli national rights and move freely around the West Bank, while Palestinians are heavily restricted.
Kerry blames Israel's construction of thousands of new settlement houses for souring the atmosphere of talks, with some building plans announced by hawkish Israeli leaders at critical points in negotiations. Whatever Israeli leaders say or truly intend, the expansion of settlements sends a physical message that Israel will never countenance a viable Palestinian state.
Expansion also obscures important arguments Israel could make about the time not being ripe for a two-state solution, with the Mideast in disarray and Iran's nuclear intentions still not clear. Had the settlements been frozen long ago, or even at the beginning of Kerry's efforts, that case might have been persuasive. But the continued settlement-building overshadows those legitimate concerns.
If Kerry's critics are really worried about the A-word or the BDS campaign, they should be pressing Israel's government to freeze settlement expansion. Dumping on Kerry, a friend of Israel who pressed mightily for a two-state solution, is outrageous -- and won't help Israel face the challenges ahead.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
-- The Philadelphia Inquirer