There are two ways you can look at the current flap over John Kerry’s off-the-record warning that in the absence of a two-state solution with Palestinians, Israel is in danger of becoming “an apartheid state.”

The first is that Kerry legitimized a common anti-Israel smear, unfair because Arabs under Israeli occupation (not to mention Israeli Arab citizens) cannot be compared to apartheid-era Africans, and inflammatory because the “A-word” marks Israel as a pariah state doomed to isolation unless fundamental change occurs.

The second is that by using a word in private that nearly everybody uses in private, and (deliberately or undeliberately) letting it get out there, Kerry has fired a shot across the bow of the Netanyahu government of Israel without formally insulting it.

Because Kerry used very conditional language, he has been able to backtrack a bit. So far nobody other than Ted Cruz is demanding his head.

Kerry’s underlying argument, of course, is perfectly commonplace, whether you agree with it or not, and a staple of Israeli and international political debates pretty much ever since the occupations that accompanied the Six-Day War of 1967 created a conflict between Israel’s Jewish identity and its commitment to constitutional democracy. There’s every reason to think Kerry is using it now because he wants to warn both sides in the current diplomatic stalemate that abandonment of peace talks aimed at a two-state solution would be calamitous for everybody.

Kerry’s American critics, to the extent they are not just engaging in partisan sniping, want it to be made clear the U.S. commitment to Israel is unconditional, even if Israel abandons not only the two-state solution but diplomacy itself, and ends any pretense that the Arabs living in the West Bank are anything other than a subject population it is perpetually inviting to pick up and leave. Israelis have their own good reasons for fearing that trajectory of events, and are probably divided between those who want to preserve Israel’s freedom of action and those who privately applaud when someone like Kerry dares say what so many think.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.