If we are to take Newt Gingrich seriously as a presidential contender, he will have to demonstrate that he understands why his remark that the Palestinians are an “invented” people was insulting and counterproductive.
Defenders of Gingrich’s remarks to The Jewish Channel say he was only stating facts, and the Palestinians only emerged as a self-identified people in the wake of the British Mandate and in response to Zionism. The obvious rejoinder is that all “peoples” are invented — Americans in the 18th century, Italians in the 19th century, Bangladeshis in the 20th. As Gingrich’s fellow conservative, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, put it: “There was no Jordan or Syria or Iraq, either, so perhaps he would say they are all invented people as well, and also have no right to statehood. Whatever was true then, Palestinian nationalism has grown since 1948, and whether we like it or not, it exists.”
But there is something more insidious about the notion that the Palestinians are somehow inauthentic in their nationalist aspirations. By denying Palestinian peoplehood, many would like to deny the Palestinian people — as if clever historical interpretations would make millions of residents of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian diaspora disappear at the drop of a footnote. That is not a path toward reconciliation nor peace — denial never is.
If you have doubts why it is important for an American presidential contender to recognize the existence and aspirations of the Palestinians, consider Israel’s own insistence that the Palestinians and their supporters acknowledge Israel as a “Jewish state.” Nothing has soured relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority like the latter’s refusal to acknowledge Israel’s claims to and history in Eretz Yisrael. Recognizing the Jewish people and their right to a state has become a litmus test for Palestinian seriousness.
In a disturbing trend, some supporters of Israel have come to believe that one cannot be too extreme in defense of Israel. Seizing on this, some politicians are engaged in a race for the Right, embracing the rhetoric of Israel’s and American Jewry’s rejectionist fringe. But Gingrich is not running for president of Americans for a Safe Israel; he is running for president of the United States. One day he might find himself sitting at a negotiating table, insisting that a Palestinian negotiator recognize Israel’s essential peoplehood. What leverage will he have if he has denied the Palestinians that very thing?
History is not just facts in a book — it is facts on the ground. Just as the Palestinians must face the fact of Jewish history, Israel’s true friends must face the reality of the Middle East.