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Gingrich, Romney, And History’s Uncomfortable Truths

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Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives who has pulled ahead of Mitt Romney in recent polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, created a firestorm late last week with his comments about the Palestinians.

Palestinian leaders, and many liberal and left-wing commentators, were outraged that he would have the nerve to refer to Palestinians as an “invented people”; point out that, historically, there “was no Palestine as a state”; and suggest that these truths must inform any analysis of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and proposed solutions:

I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were 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, and it’s tragic.

Mr. Gingrich’s chief rival for the nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said that while he agreed with the substance of Mr. Gingrich’s remarks, they were not official Israeli policy and Mr. Gingrich should have checked with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as to whether Israel wanted him to go public with his observations.

A little context here would be helpful.

In his troubling 2009 Cairo speech soon after his election as president, Mr. Obama discussed the basis of Israel’s legitimacy. He posited the rationale for the Jewish state completely in terms of payback for centuries of Jewish suffering, culminating in the Holocaust: “The aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”

He made no mention at all of any connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, or that the Middle East was the birthplace of Jewish civilization and that Jews struggled for millennia to return and reestablish themselves there.

However, when referring in the same speech to the Palestinians, he spoke exclusively in terms of their ostensible connection to the land and the interruptions caused by Israel:

….[I]t is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity of their own.

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly this past September, the Jewish connection to Israel was not part of the equation:

I come before you today from the Holy Land, the land of Palestine, the land of divine messages, ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the birthplace of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people in the homeland and in the Diaspora, to say, after 63 years of suffering of the ongoing Nakba: Enough. It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence.

And, of course, Iran’s Ahmadinejad and many other Muslim and Arab leaders and spokesmen maintain that Israel is an artificial political construct in the Middle East imposed by Western powers because of their guilt over the Holocaust.

So when Mr. Gingrich kicks over the diplomatic and historical façade that has long obscured the real history of the Middle East over the past century, when he makes the indisputable point that up until very recently there was no Palestinian nation or people, it creates a great deal of discomfort among Israel’s enemies, like Mr. Abbas, and even among Israel’s friends, like Mr. Romney.

Indeed, Mr. Romney’s response to Mr. Gingrich during the GOP debate in Iowa Saturday night that was even more fascinating. Here is how he responded to moderator George Stephanopoulos’s queries and follow-ups as to whether he takes “any issue with that characterization of the Palestinians as an invented people?”

I happen to agree with…most of what the speaker said except by going down and saying the Palestinians are an invented people. That I think was a mistake on the speaker’s part…. I think we’re very wise to stand with our friends Israel and not get out ahead of them. This president decided he was gonna try and negotiate for Israel by sayin’ “Let’s go back to the ’67 border.” That’s not what Israel wanted to hear. They – Israel does not want us to make it more difficult for them to sit down with the Palestinians. Ultimately, the Palestinians and the Israelis are gonna have to agree on how they’re gonna settle the differences between them…. If Bibi Netanyahu wants to say what you said, let him say it…. [B]efore I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, “Would it help if I said this? Would you like me to do it?

We find this a rather curious stance from someone who aspires to be president of the United States. Is he really describing how he would make policy? As a supplicant asking the leader of another country to vet his policy statements? While we believe the United States should try to be a helpful interlocutor between Israel and the Palestinians and not attempt to pressure Israel into doing things it does not consider prudent in terms of its security interests, the Romney formulation seems a bit much and unrealistic.

On the other hand, just because an American official – even a president – makes a declaration, it doesn’t mean it should necessarily be binding on Israel. To take the present controversy as an example, were a President Gingrich to speak of the Palestinians as candidate Gingrich just did, the Israeli prime minister should be free to either accept it or reject it. And there is the rub. The issue is not what was said, but whether Israel would be given the leeway to act according to its own lights. Mr. Romney seems to viscerally think otherwise despite his seemingly deferential comments.

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