Newt Gingrich, the volatile new frontrunner of an equally volatile Republican presidential primary, stepped into controversy again last week. In a speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition, Gingrich argued that Palestinians are an “invented” people.
His Republican opponents chastised him for meddling in Middle East issues best left to the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve. Mitt Romney, desperate to counter Gingrich’s rapid rise in the polls, said that as opposed to Gingrich, he isn’t a “bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally”.
Gingrich shot back by invoking Ronald Reagan, who ignored his advisors to speak the truth about the Soviet Union and to tell Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Gingrich argued that the president exercises leadership by telling the truth, no matter the diplomatic fallout.
Hearing Gingrich lecture about the importance of honesty must have provoked laughs from the nation’s jaded political observers, but there is a more important issue at hand: was Gingrich’s statement accurate, and, perhaps most crucially, was it befitting a presidential contender?
Gingrich supported his “invented people” claim by saying that there has never been a state of Palestine and that the land was a part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years before the British mandate of 1917 and the eventual State of Israel in 1948. Gingrich also claimed that the Palestinians didn’t even organize themselves as a unified people until 1967. However, even if he were to claim that the Palestinians aren’t a people and support it with an event from the 1960s, he has his dates wrong. The Palestinian Liberation Organization first came into being in 1964 under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, predecessor to current PLO and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On the larger claim of “invented people”, Speaker Gingrich omits a crucial fact of human existence and organizational patterns: all nations are invented. Would Gingrich go before a Hispanic audience and claim that Mexicans are an invented people? After all, prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 “Mexico” was a hodgepodge of different nations often at war with each other and with each claiming unique cultures and languages. Would he speak bombastically of the United States being an invented nation? After all, there is no singular American culture, religion, or language—our very identity rests on our diversity. And, before an audience like the RJC, would he claim that Israelis are an invented people? Israel in its current form did not exist before 1948, and even in the days leading up to the declaration of independence few knew what the name of the new Jewish state would be.
Moreover, Gingrich’s comments reflect a profound lack of rhetorical self-control. He may indeed believe that the Palestinians are an invented people, and perhaps some in his RJC audience do too. But the president of the United States must know how to avoid unnecessary incendiary statements. What possible good could have come from the remark? Gingrich’s rhetorical style risks alienating any and every Palestinian who might have possibly sought to create peace with Israel. Admittedly, there are larger challenges to this endeavor, chief among them Palestinian recalcitrance in returning to the negotiating table and incitement against Jews, Israelis, and the West in Palestinian society. But does it not seem hypocritically sanctimonious for Gingrich to speak in incendiary terms and then point out Palestinian incitement to justify it?
Israelis and supporters of Israel are looking for a friend in the White House, given their dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s inconsistent, at times humiliating and at times helpful, approach towards the Middle East. But they are not looking for a president that starts fires where none existed. After all, it’s the Israelis, not Newt Gingrich, who would have to put those fires out—rhetorically and literally.