Newt Gingrich has found himself at the center of a firestorm after remarks in an interview in which he called the Palestinians “an invented people,” stating that they are Arabs first and foremost. This has predictably drawn heavy criticism from his rivals to the GOP nomination and from Palestinian leaders. Saeb Erakat even called the remark “the most racist statement [he’s] ever seen.” Gingrich’s remarks in full:
I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state. Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, who are historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places and for a variety of political reasons, we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s. I think it’s tragic.
Yeah, it’s simplistic. It’s hard to argue, for starters, that Arabs strongly identified with the Ottoman Empire that conquered them–it’s typically regarded by Turks and Arabs alike as a dark age. It’s also a bit silly to talk about how Palestinians “had a chance to go many places,” considering that Palestinian refugees are still second-class citizens in many Arab states, even if they’ve been there for generations.
But let’s give the former Speaker some intellectual credit. (He is, after all, to use his own words, “the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson,” in what be the only time the name Wilson was referenced glowingly by a Republican.) There is, in fact, a historical rivalry of the Palestinian and Arab identities, and it plays a prominent role in pan-Arabist thought, especially that which originated in Egypt. Mr. Gingrich is, in other words, a Nasserite. Nasser wanted to unite all Arab peoples in one state. One of the fundamental goals of pan-Arabism, by geopolitical necessity, was thus the elimination of Israel, as Israel physically divides the Arab world into two parts. He thus saw the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 as a serious threat to pan-Arabism, because it claimed that a Palestinian movement, not an Arab one, was most suited to the task of returning Palestine to Arab rule, and because it replaced the notion of one unified Arab people with parochialism. Nasser’s Syrian rivals were wise to this, and accordingly heavily backed the PLO and other Palestinian movements, allowing them to use Syrian territory and weaponry to conduct guerrilla raids into Israel.
Recall also that in Nasser’s day the territories which we now call Palestine–the West Bank and the Gaza Strip–were not Palestinian. Gaza was a part of Egypt; the West Bank a part of Jordan. Both Egypt and Jordan had very difficult relationships with their Palestinian subjects, but they were nevertheless in control. Advocacy of a return to this era is known as the three-state solution; it’s extremely unpopular because the Palestinian populations were never really beholden to or respected by Cairo and Amman. To advocate it is to ignore the last 50 years of Middle Eastern history. That’s the most charitable interpretation of what Gingrich was saying–namely, the best solution for Palestine is for it to be absorbed by its neighbors. The less charitable interpretation, and what I suspect Gingrich actually intended to convey when he spoke, is that Israel should control both the West Bank and Gaza, and that the Palestinians should leave these areas and go live somewhere else. This position is most closely matched by the old Gush Emunim movement, which sought to settle the West Bank and Gaza to hasten the return of the Messiah. It’s a position that is not advocated by any major Israeli party. Gingrich, in his effort to show his pro-Israel credentials, positioned himself to the right of almost everyone in Israel. It’s a bit reminiscent of Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress earlier this year, in which the Israeli PM was repeatedly interrupted by applause, despite the fact that he made several remarks that were, in the Israeli context, partisan.
Gingrich’s remarks, then, weren’t as wildly unjustifiable and racist as they seemed, but they also did not show he has a deep “professorial” understanding of the challenges of the Middle East. As it turns out, his aides have stepped in to end the controversy, saying that Gingrich favors a two-state solution: “a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.” However, the spokesman added,
understanding “what is being proposed and negotiated” requires a grasp of “decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview.”