Reaction to Newt Gingrich’s remarks about the Palestinians has been pouring in — from Republicans, Democrats, Palestinians, etc. — and they aren’t pretty. Mostly they have been the insults and name-calling that pass for political discourse today. I think it’s interesting that virtually all of his critics responded to Gingrich’s remark that the Palestinians are an ‘invented people’, and not, for example, to this one:
…you have Abbas who says in the United Nations, “We do not necessarily concede Israel’s right to exist.” You’ve had four PLA ambassadors around the world say flatly, “Israel does not have a right to exist.” In late November in India, the PLA ambassador said “Anybody who thinks there is a big gap between Hamas and Fatah is kidding themselves.” You know, and so you have to start with this question “Who are you making peace with?”
It’s a lot easier to take the cheap shot and call someone a ‘racist’ or ‘destructive’ than to deal with the brute fact that US policy is entirely disconnected from reality. So even when criticism is polite, it misses the point. Take this, for example:
But imagine, for the sake of argument, that what Gingrich says is true. So what? If Palestinians are just an undifferentiated group of Arabs who happen to live in the West Bank and Gaza, what are the implications of that?
Gingrich seems to think the implication is that Palestinians aren’t entitled to their own state, although he doesn’t quite say so. If he opposes a two-state solution, that puts him on the far fringe of both American and international politics. (His spokesman says he supports a two-state solution as part of a negotiated settlement.)
But more importantly, Gingrich is laying out a perverse definition of statehood. Does Gingrich think that states should be ethnocentric? The United States isn’t, although Gingrich’s appeal is largely based on white Christian ethnocentric nationalism. Israeli national identity is as much a twentieth-century invention as Palestinian identity.
There are several things to say about this:
1. Of course Gingrich does not think that all states should be nation-states (what the writer calls “ethnocentric” states). Israel is, France is, the US isn’t. Incidentally, the last sentence shows that he also has no clue about what a people is; Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, which has been in existence for several thousand years, and indeed maintained a nation-state in the land of Israel for longer than any other group. Nobody thinks there is an “Israeli people.”
2. The Palestinians are not simply asking for self-government for the residents of Judea and Samaria. If they were, they would not be able to insist that the Jewish communities there must be dismantled. They would not be able to demand that Arab refugees from 1948 and their descendents have a ‘right of return’ to Israel. They would not refuse to accept Israel’s own self-definition. They are demanding recognition as a nation and to establish a nation-state.
3. I can agree that whether the Palestinians are “just an undifferentiated group of Arabs” or a ‘people’ is not the only thing, or even the main thing, that is relevant to whether they should have a state. Since their state is planned to be next door to Israel, and indeed, if it is established it will be in the historical heart of the land of Israel, the attitude of this bunch of Arabs toward Israel and Jews is extremely important. As as Gingrich pointed out in some of the quotations that were not widely remarked upon, this attitude is anything but peaceful and neighborly.
5. There is also the question of intent. The Palestinian Arabs have for decades been doing their best to deny Jewish history, to substitute themselves for the Jews as the original inhabitants of the land, making the most outrageous claims (like being descendents of the biblical Jebusites), destroying archaeological evidence of Jewish provenance, claiming Jewish historical and religious sites as their own, etc. Arab lies are intended to delegitimize the historical right of the Jewish people to have a state, and to aid in the destruction of it. If the ‘Palestinian people’ were invented, it was just for this purpose.
It seems that despite the lip service that is paid to historical truth, it is considered tacky or worse to point out that this particular emperor has no clothes. But in the real world, the US president has to make decisions. Good ones aren’t likely to come from fairy tales.
Theoretically — and I hope in fact it is true — the main objective of our Israeli/Arab policy is to end the conflict. This cannot occur as long as the history of it and a realistic understanding of the objectives of both sides, even an identification of all the players — it is not just Israel and the Palestinians — is not present. Our current president does not have this understanding, and indeed the administration’s Orwellian restrictions on language about the Middle East in general make it impossible for them to even speak about it sensibly.
Gingrich is a breath of fresh air in this respect.