By Amb. Wendy Chamberlin
Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich’s recent remarks that the Palestinians are an “invented” people, all of whom are “terrorists,” are far from historical truth.
But more damaging than Gingrich’s rewriting of history is the negative effect of his political posturing. In the Middle East, many audiences conflate the former House speaker’s remarks with the views of the Obama administration. In their eyes, he is a leading public official taking the “American” stance — one that undermines US leadership in the region because of its implicit bias toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This ultimately weakens the US’ ability to assure Israel’s security — the very position Gingrich purports to back.
It is puzzling to try to interpret what Gingrich means by “invented” people. You could point to just about any country on the globe and claim, with some truth, that the people living there are “invented,” Humans’ migration patterns over the long course of recorded history have meant that most of us come from somewhere else — depending on how far back you go. The French, Brazilians, Afrikaaners and, most certainly, Americans are all invented peoples — if Gingrich means people not native to the land where they currently reside
By this definition, Palestinians probably have a stronger claim to nationhood than any of the above. Most scholars of the ancient Middle East, including many Israeli scholars, agree that the people known as Palestinians have been living the same area since approximately 1200 B.C. — or about when the Israelites entered these lands. That’s more than three millennia of continuous settlement, or, put another way, 2,600 years before the first American colony was established at Jamestown, Va. Romans and subsequent empires referred to them as “Philistines,” people who occupy the land of Philistia.
Gingrich was no doubt correct in saying that the idea of a modern Palestinian state did not emerge until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the imposition of the British mandate in 1922. But then, the same could be said for Israel — which was only created by the United Nations in 1948.
There’s little doubt that Gingrich was pandering to a key constituency in his drive to win support for his presidential bid. And, within days, Sheldon Adelson had reportedly contributed $20 million to the Gingrich campaign. He is a longtime supporter of the speaker – but also a longtime supporter of Israel.
By claiming that Palestinians are “invented,” and smearing them all with the terrorist label, Gingrich appears to seek to de-legitimize their quest for statehood. This position stands in stark contrast to the official policies of the last seven US administrations, both Republican and Democrat. It is even in more strongly right than the current hardline Likud government in Israel.
Every realistic leader in the US, Israel, Europe and the Arab world realizes that the workable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a two-state solution — with final borders and other key issues settled by direct negotiation between the parties.
To be sure, Gingrich has since stated he also supports such a two-state solution. But it’s difficult to see how that view squares with his disparaging comments regarding the Palestinians.
Washington has played, and should play again, a crucial role as a neutral arbiter in the negotiations to take place between the two sides. And any final settlement will probably require the personal intervention of the U.S. president — as it did at Camp David and Wye River.
In order for the president to be effective, he must have the trust and confidence of both sides. Alas, Gingrich, with his incendiary and false statements, has lost the trust of the Palestinians and the larger Arab world.
Should he ever become president, that loss will be damaging to our ability to assure Israel’s security. Not to mention US national interests.
Amb. Wendy Chamberlin is the president of the Middle East Institute.This Commentary was first published as an op-ed in Politico on December 15, 2011
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.