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Gingrich Folly, Arab Apathy – OpEd

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By Osama Al Sharif

Not since then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s infamous declaration in 1969 that “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist,” has a high-profile politician dared to question the existence of the Palestinians. That is until Republican presidential contender and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made an audacious and dangerous statement last week saying that the “Palestinians are an invented people.”

That he was speaking in an interview with The Jewish Channel in Washington underlines the fact that many American politicians are sloppily willing to break away from bipartisan policy on the Middle East conflict in order to appease and tout America’s Jewish constituency. And by doing so Gingrich and others are adopting stands that even hard-line Israeli leaders are hesitant to take.

Of course, Gingrich is wrong both factually and historically. No one in his right mind would get involved in such a debate and no sensible politician, especially those who care about Israeli interests, would want to alter long-standing policies based on this false premise. Gingrich, who defended his position even when he was criticized by fellow Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, is currently ahead in the polls and may well be on his way to secure his party’s nomination for the 2012 presidential elections.

Gingrich’s egregious proclamation is just one example of how an entire generation of US politicians is willing to trample over decades-old US policy on the Palestine question for self-serving goals. Even American Jews would disagree with some of the positions of presidential candidates who identify themselves as friends of Israel.

The danger of such irresponsible stands is that they tend to obscure an already complicated situation where peace talks remain suspended while unilateral Israel measures continue to gnaw at Palestinian lands and legitimate rights. Even if a winning candidate changes his position later, he would have given a right-wing Israeli government the ammunition it needs to boycott peace talks and push on with one-sided policies.

The Obama administration is taking flak from all sides — from Israel for doing little on Iran and for abandoning Israel’s Arab friends who were toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings, and from the Palestinians, and Arabs, for failing to pressure Israel to freeze settlement activities and resume negotiations. It is also being attacked by most Republicans for not being a strong supporter of Israel. Two weeks ago US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern over the future of Israeli democracy. She too is being criticized by US politicians.

In recent years support for Israel had become a regular feature in both parties’ campaigns. Even a sitting president, like Obama, would not miss the annual meeting of AIPAC, the powerful Israel lobby, to reiterate his sterling support of Israel and its security. Few, if any, would dare speak of Palestinian rights, especially their right to a state of their own.

The US Congress is overwhelmingly biased in favor of Israel and when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress earlier this year, he received more standing ovations than President Obama did a few weeks earlier. Israel has become a hot partisan issue to the extent that even pro-Israel lawmakers, like Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey, warned both parties recently that “Israel should not be used in order to gain a political foothold.”

But the fact of the matter is that supporting Israel has become an obligatory gateway to garner political support in internal US politics. But what Gingrich has done is to go beyond the usual manifestations of loyalty to the Jewish state. He has now taken the Palestinians completely out of the equation; something that even inflexible Israeli leaders have been reluctant to do.

Aside from an angry denunciation from the Palestinian Authority (PA), Arab reaction was muted. In fact, rarely has an Arab statesman commented on the nuances of US presidential elections. But in the case of Gingrich and his outrageous uttering, a strong Arab reaction was warranted. In the past, looking the other way while presidential contenders competed to pay tribute to Israel would have been understood. But today, as the region is changing fast and a new Arab world is emerging. Arab leaders should recognize the importance of the Palestinian issue as a catalyst for popular activism.

American politicians should not be chided by the press, some pundits and a few other contenders on the issue of Israel and the peace process. They must know that hundreds of millions of Arabs, and Muslims, reject one-sided approaches to the Middle East conflict. They should know that by making provocative statements, like the one Gingrich has made, they risk endangering US strategic interests in this region.

— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

Arab News

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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