GOP Rivals Don’t Dispute Substance of Gingrich’s ‘Invented Palestinian People’ Remark, But Question Its Wisdom

By Patrick Goodenough | December 12, 2011 | 4:42 AM EST

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, right, during the Republican debate, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

( – Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s assertion that the Palestinians are an “invented” people continues to draw condemnation, but the former House speaker has not backed down from the provocative remark.

“Is what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it historically true? Yes,” Gingrich said during a GOP presidential primary debate on Saturday night.

“This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage,” he continued. “And we refuse to tell the truth when the other side lies. And you’re not going to win the long run if you’re afraid to stand firm and stand for the truth.”

Criticism of Gingrich’s original comment, made during an interview with The Jewish Channel, came from quarters disputing the substance of his claim that there is no distinct Palestinian national identity, and from others who questioned the wisdom of the candidate making the remark at all.

Responding to a question about his position on Zionism, Gingrich told his interviewer, “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 and who are historically part of the Arab community.”

Palestinian officials slammed the comments as “racist” and “ignorant.”

“Our people have been here from the beginning,” Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told reporters in Ramallah, while a Hamas spokesman said Gingrich’s statements denied “our ancient history” and Fatah official Osama al-Qawasmeh declared, “our people are backed by thousands of years of history.”

“If the Palestinian people are indeed ‘invented,’ then Gingrich should also accept the argument that the American people are, arguably, also ‘invented,’ ” Dubai’s Gulf News said in an editorial.

Sen. Carl Levin (AP Photo)

Closer to home, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) called the statements “a can of gasoline and a match” and during Saturday’s ABC News/Yahoo News GOP debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Gingrich faced criticism from some of his rivals.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said the “invented people” remark was “a mistake,” suggesting that the last thing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu needed was to have a U.S. presidential candidate “stand up and say things that create extraordinary tumult in his neighborhood.”

“I think you have to speak the truth, but you have to do so with prudence,” agreed former Sen. Rick Santorum.

“We need to be working with the Israelis to find out – you know what? Is this a wise thing for us to do, to step forward and to engage this issue? Maybe it is,” he said. “My guess is, at this point in time, it’s not.”

Rep. Ron Paul said the Ottoman Empire comment was “technically correct,” but also warned about “getting ourselves into trouble mentioning things that are unnecessary.”

Also invited to respond, Rep. Michele Bachmann instead spoke about anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian school textbooks while Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized President Obama’s Mideast policies, concluding, “This president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said.”

‘Part of the Arab nation’

Impartial historians would not dispute Gingrich’s assertion about a Palestinian national identity having been “invented,” but would add that so too were Jordanian, Lebanese and Iraqi peoples created as a result of European colonial decisions following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. (The Kurds lost out, their subsequent attempts at self-determination violently crushed by Turkey and Iran.)

Before 1948, the term “Palestinian” was both a demonym for the inhabitants of British-mandated Palestine (Palestinian Arabs, Palestinian Jews) and an adjective (Palestinian olives, Palestinian towns). There never had been a Palestinian nation, state, self-governing administration or capital.

In its own charter, adopted in 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) says the Palestinians Arabs “are an integral part of the Arab nation” (some translations say “inseparable part of the Arab nation.”) The charter includes six references to the “Arab nation” but not one to a “Palestinian nation.”

It defines a Palestinian as any Arab who “normally resided” in the British mandate of Palestine “until 1947” but does not say how long such residence was required. The U.N. refugee agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, defines them as those who lived in the area for just two years before having “lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Ironically, the PLO charter challenges Jews’ claims to links with the land, dating back to the biblical patriarchs and King David’s kingdom 3,000 years ago: “Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood,” the document states. “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”

Gingrich’s statements fly in the face of more than half a century of Arab governments’ expressions of support for the Palestinian cause (although neither Jordan nor Egypt offered statehood to the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza when they controlled those areas for the 19 years before Israel captured them in 1967.)

The Palestinian cause is also a top priority for the United Nations, which maintains various “Question of Palestine” committees, programs, human rights procedures, offices and the refugee agency, holds an annual “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” and has granted the PLO a status at the U.N. unthinkable for any other non-state party.

‘It’s a fact’

Irrespective of origins, experts argue that there is little argument that the second half of the 20th century saw the development of a Palestinian national consciousness.

“Whatever the Palestinians once were, they are clearly a nation in the simplest and most important sense – namely, they think of themselves as a nation,” George Friedman of the independent intelligence analysis firm, Stratfor, wrote last August. “Nations are created by historical circumstances, and those circumstances have given rise to a Palestinian nation.”

Speaking on Fox News, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer agreed with Gingrich’s bald historical statement – to a point.

“There wasn’t even a Palestinian consciousness – they considered, the first half of the 20th century, they were part of the larger Arab world,” Krauthammer said. “However, as a result of the last 30 years there is a Palestinian national consciousness. It’s now a fact – invented or not it’s a fact – and the world has to respond.”

After the uproar that followed Gingrich’s remarks to The Jewish Channel – but before he stood by them during the Iowa debate – the candidate’s campaign issued a brief statement.

“Newt Gingrich supports 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,” it said.

“However, to understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history, which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview with The Jewish Channel.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow