Gingrich was wrong about Palestinian identity but right that it is at the core of the conflict
It’s not so much that the Palestinians don’t want a peace deal as that they cannot continue to see themselves as Palestinian should they ever fully accept the legitimacy of Israel
There’s a very important piece in Wednesday’s Jerusalem Post by Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, on Newt Gingrich’s controversial remarks about Palestinian nationalism.
A few weeks back Gingrich, running for the Republican nomination for next year’s presidential elections, had rather too casually said of the Palestinians,“These people are terrorists”. If he’d said that a disgracefully large proportion of the Palestinian population support terrorism his comments would have had the rock solid backing of all the available evidence. As it was, he left himself open to the charge that he was smearing an entire people.
But it was his remarks appearing to dismiss Palestinian nationalism itself that really generated all the heat.
“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state – [it was] part of the Ottoman Empire,” he said. “I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places.”
As Shoval puts it: “Historically and factually, Newt Gingrich was right, of course… It is almost superfluous to add that there has never been a Palestinian state or a sovereign Palestinian entity of any kind.
“Nor is Gingrich’s point particularly controversial. “Palestinians” themselves, including Professor Rashid Khalidi, the well-known Arab-American historian with close links to the PLO, has placed the emergence of a Palestinian national identity in the context of a reaction to the Zionist movement – occurring only in the last half of the 20th century.”
Shoval goes on to point out that significant sections of the Arab/Palestinian population were relatively recent immigrants, unable to trace their history on Palestinian land further back than a few generations.
This is all taking the discussion very much in the right direction. A central element of the anti-Zionist narrative is to purvey the entirely false impression that Jewish immigrants from Europe effectively invaded a foreign land and then dispossessed and kicked out a unified people who had been living there since the dawn of time. If that was really the case why on earth should the Palestinians ever contemplate sharing or partitioning into two states a land which rightfully belongs to them and them alone?
Gingrich deserves praise for bringing the discussion of Palestinian nationalism back into the public domain and thus allowing us to set the record straight.
But that, I think is as far as we can go with him, because so what if Palestinian national identity is invented and relatively recent? There are dozens of nationalisms that could be said to have been invented relatively recently not least Zionism itself.
What matters is whether the identity in question is felt as real by the national group in question and the rest of us.
“…[This]invention is now a fact of political life,” says Shoval, “acknowledged by most of the nations of the world – including official Israel. Therefore, the real issue today is not a theoretical one, but how best to deal with this reality in practical terms.”
What that means is that we should not dismiss Palestinian nationalism, we should ask how it would manifest itself in practice in the form of a Palestinian state.
“Will it facilitate a solution to the Arab refugee problem – or hinder it? Will it look inwards or will it have irredentist ambitions? Will it acknowledge Israel as the state of the Jewish people – and most importantly, how will Israel's security concerns, including the need for an Israeli presence in strategic areas such as the Jordan valley, be ascertained?”
As one of his country’s most senior former diplomats it is understandable that Shoval is keen to deal with the hard-headed practical realities. And in so far as he goes, he is right. But I think we still need to take a step back into the theory and the principles surrounding Palestinian nationalism because it is precisely the way that Palestinian nationalism has been constructed that makes it so difficult to achieve lasting peace.
The key point to consider is that even if it is wrong to dismiss the authenticity of Palestinian nationalism, it is right to point out that Palestinian nationalism is extremely unusual.
Consider the best known Palestinian political grouping: the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Why isn’t the best known Palestinian political grouping called the Palestine National Congress or the Palestinian National Movement?
The answer is as straightforward as it is crucial to the essence of the conflict. And it is this: because at the time when the Palestinian national consciousness was being formed, the central task was not the creation of something but the destruction of something, namely Israel.
The point is not new. But its implications are rarely spelled out, especially in Europe where anti-Zionist hysteria has a stranglehold over much of the media and large sections of the political establishment.
Highly unusually, at its inception Palestinian nationalism could theoretically have achieved its maximal ambition without having achieved statehood. The creation of a Palestinian state is a second order priority. And this is why peace has been so difficult to achieve despite several offers for a division of the land from Israel. It’s not so much that the Palestinians don’t want such a deal as that they cannot in most cases continue to see themselves as Palestinian should they ever fully accept the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.
That is why the polls – always deliberately censored from the discussion by the BBC, the Guardian et al – consistently show that the large majority of Palestinians only accept a two-state solution as a stepping stone to the destruction of Israel.
To say the least, all of this seems to pose a pretty monumental problem for anyone interested in forging a lasting peace, and there are people out there who will not engage with the realities of Palestinian nationalism precisely because they are afraid that to do so is to throw one’s hands in the air and accept that the conflict is intractable.
But not so fast. Remember the insights brought to the discussion by our friend Newt Gingrich. To be sure, we need to turn on its head the notion that because it is recent and invented it is insubstantial. The key problem is that it is all too substantial. But if the substance of Palestinian nationalism could be invented in the first place and if it could take shape in a relatively short time frame, then it can be re-invented and done so reasonably quickly.
This is why focusing our efforts on getting Palestinian leaders to promote a different narrative to their people is so essential to the prospects for peace. That is why the true peace makers are the ones that insist that incitement, anti-Semitism, the glorification of terrorism and school textbooks with maps erasing Israel’s existence must all stop and be removed. And that is why the people in the BBC and the Guardian who refuse to report and discuss such matters are not just the enemies of truth, they are also the enemies of peace.
Newt Gingrich may need to watch his language, and he was wrong in his conclusions. But whoever he is talking to about Israel is right about one thing: Palestinian national identity is at the absolute core of this conflict. And there will be no peace, ever, until it is radically overhauled.
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