Newt Gingrich has created a lot of waves by saying:
“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places.”
Is Newt right? As Jonathan Tobin noted, he is historically accurate. There was no widespread sense of Palestinian nationhood until the last few decades. In fact, there was such widespread apathy among the Palestinians that Yasser Arafat and the PLO initially had little luck in mobilizing a revolt against Israeli rule. Arabs in Israel proper have been largely peaceful to this day. Even in the West Bank and Gaza Strip there was no widespread uprising until the First Intifada in
1987. Until then, the Palestinian cause was largely championed by outsiders—either other Arabs or Palestinians in exile like Arafat (who was in all likelihood born in Egypt). Many, perhaps most “Palestinians” were willing to make accommodations with Israeli rule as they had previously made accommodations with Egyptians, Jordanians, Ottomans and other rulers.
But the fact that Palestinian identity is largely an invention and has not existed for all time hardly makes the Palestinians unique. All national identity is to some extent invented. Britain, France, Italy, Germany, the United States: all are artificial entities that had to be forged over time. The process of state formation in the last three was relatively recent—the U.S. did not come into existence until 1776 and was arguably not a truly unified nation until 1865; Italy and Germany were created at roughly the same time. Britain and France are older, but they still had to be forged out of regional identities—the process of turning “Burgundians” and “Normans” into Frenchmen took centuries.
For better or worse, however, national identity is fairly well entrenched in all those states now—as the European Union is now discovering in the case of Britain, in particular. So, too, the Palestinians have forged a national identity over the past few decades, in no small measure through the terrorism of the PLO, the PFLP, Hamas and other groups, which sparked a backlash from Israel and helped consolidate a Palestinian sense of grievance and hence identity.
There is little point at this stage, I would argue, in disputing whether the Palestinians are a “nation”; they think of themselves as a nation, so they have become one. Other states, including Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. under George W. Bush, have recognized the Palestinian claim to statehood, so the
point seems little more than academic.
The real issue now is not whether the Palestinians should have a state—there seems close to universal agreement on that score, now—but at what pace and on what terms. Gingrich, along with most Americans, including his Republican rivals (full disclosure: I’m a Romney adviser), is not comfortable granting nationhood to regimes such as Hamas and even the Palestinian Authority which have not fully disavowed terrorism and have refused to fully embrace Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Israel is another fairly new state, albeit with ancient roots. If Palestinians have a claim to statehood, the Israeli case is incontestable.
To win even more Israeli concessions, the Palestinians must show they are fully committed to peace—and this they have not yet shown.
That is the crux of the matter. Gingrich is right in some academic sense but he is also, as a practical matter, arguing the wrong point. He should stick to the
real issue at hand: whether Israel should trade more land for ephemeral promises of “peace.”