Newt Gingrich is taking a lot of flack for telling a Jewish cable channel that the Palestinians are an “invented people.” Those comments were the subject of a lengthy segment of last night’s Republican presidential debate and will, no doubt, inspire angry commentary from the pro-Palestinian left as well as concern from others who will say that Gingrich’s attitude is unpresidential (as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum seemed to imply) and will not help the cause of peace.
This leaves us with three questions: Was Gingrich right? If so, what implications should this have for U.S. policy? And even if he was correct, was it wise for him to say it?
The answer to the first question is simple. Yes, of course, he is right.
There was no Palestinian Arab state or political entity under the Ottoman Empire or any previous ruler of this region. Indeed, prior to the 20th century, there is no evidence of there ever having been a consciousness on the part of the inhabitants of having a separate political identity that was distinct from the rest of the Arabs of the region.
When the Jews began to return to the country in large numbers over a century ago, Arabs and Ottomans, not Palestinians, met them. Indeed, may of those who now call themselves Palestinians are the descendants of Arab immigrants into the country from surrounding countries who came to find work that was available when the Jews began to rebuild the land. This was asserted in Joan Peters’ controversial book, From Time Immemorial, whose scholarship was roundly criticized when it was published by liberals who didn’t like her conclusions. The fact remains that Arab immigration into Palestine did take place.
It is also a fallacy to claim, as some do, that Zionism is as much a modern invention as Palestinian identity.
The only people to call themselves “Palestinians” prior to the creation of the state of Israel were the Jews who were the first, and up until that time, the only group to conceive of the land as being the home of a separate people or national identity. That was no accident since the land now called Israel or Palestine was sacred only to one people. For centuries, it was an Arab backwater, but it has been the object of prayers for two millennia for the Jews who not only never ceased to hope for the restoration of their sovereignty but also, as is rarely mentioned, never entirely left its soil. Zionism was merely a new name for an ancient though still living people’s belief about their homeland and their destiny.
By contrast, Palestinian nationalism is, as Gingrich rightly said, a 20th century invention. It arose and flourished purely as a reaction to Zionism, a factor that has fatally complicated the quest for peace as Palestinian identity seems to be predicated more on a desire to extinguish the Jewish state and to delegitimize the Jewish presence than it is on the re-creation of an Arab political culture that is specific to this locality.
Even 50 years ago, there was little notion of a separate Palestinian political identity. After all, from 1949 to 1967 Jordan ruled the West Bank and half of Jerusalem and Egypt controlled Gaza. During those 19 years, there was no international clamor to create a Palestinian state in those territories. It would only be after Israel took control over the territories during the Six-Day War that the absence of a Palestinian state was deemed intolerable.
That said, it must be conceded that even if the Palestinians did invent themselves in the last 100 years, it is pointless to deny they do exist now. Millions consider themselves to be part of a distinct Palestinian people with a common history and destiny. The United States and Israel both understand that their desire for self-rule must be accommodated so long as it does not infringe on the rights and security of Israel. A two-state solution that would allow a state of Palestine to exist alongside Israel is now believed by most Israelis to be a commonsensical idea even if it would involve painful territorial compromises.
The catch is that the Palestinians seem unable to accept the idea of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. And that is where their “invented” history comes in. Since the Palestinians only arrived on the world stage as a result of their revulsion at the notion of Jewish sovereignty over any part of the country, it is difficult, if not impossible for them to come to terms with a peace that would imply Israel’s permanence.
The role of the United States in this mess is not so much to point out the myths about Palestinian history, though myths they are, as to impress upon the Arabs and their supporters that they must abandon their rejection of Zionism.
As for Gingrich’s judgment in saying what he did, it must be said it was refreshing to hear a major American political figure state the truth about the history of the Palestinians and to say the myths they have created have been in service to one goal only: the destruction of Israel. Doing so will not fuel anti-American terrorism as much as it will disabuse the Palestinians of the idea they have long cherished that sooner or later, the United States will abandon Israel.
Nevertheless, it must also be pointed out that if he is elected president, Gingrich will have to deal with the Palestinians and the Arab world. Being upfront about America’s closeness with Israel and that there will be an end to Obama’s practice of treating the Jewish state and those that desire its destruction as being morally equivalent is fine. But it remains to be seen whether Gingrich has the ability to be more than an accurate student of the history of the Middle East. It is fair to say as president, he will have to be more guarded in his statements and even fairer to express skepticism about his ability to do so.