Why Gingrich is right – and wrong

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks on Palestinian identity before a poster of Jerusalem. (Flash 90)

By ZALMAN SHOVAL (The Jerusalem Post)

Historically and factually, Newt Gingrich was right, of course, when he said that “the Palestinians are an invented people.” 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.

Before the creation of Israel, Arabs living in Palestine saw themselves, and were seen by others, as part of the Arab multitude spread over large parts of the Ottoman Empire. In addition, many of Palestine’s leading families immigrated to the region only a few generations ago, their antecedents being in Egypt, North Africa and Moslem (but not Arab) parts of the Russian Empire. For these families, the real affiliations of most parts of the Arab population were principally tribal and family-related, not national. There were no significant cultural or ethnic differences between Palestinian Arabs and the Arab populations in neighboring countries, e.g. Syria, Jordan or the Sunni segments of Lebanon, nor are there now.

There is further Arab proof that separate Palestinian people-hood was “invented” less than 100 years ago. As late as 1936 the newly established central political organ of the Arab community in British Mandatory Palestine was named “The Arab Higher Committee” – not the Palestinian Higher Committee.

That body was founded by the notorious Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who spent the second World War in Nazi-occupied Europe and was an active collaborator with the Nazi regime. Husseini obtained funding for the Arab Higher Committee from his friend, Adolf Eichmann (who visited him in Jerusalem), and one of Eichmann’s deputies later recounted that the Mufti had personally urged Hitler to exterminate European Jewry.

One other prominent member of the “Committee,” by the way, was Hussein al-Khalidi, an uncle of the aforementioned Arab-American historian.

It is an irony of history that while Arabs in Palestine didn’t define themselves as “Palestinians,” others did use that self definition – the Jews. Early Zionist pioneers and their supporters created the “Jewish Agency for Palestine,” the “United Palestine Appeal” (later a.k.a. the UJA) and the “Palestine Orchestra” (now celebrating its 75th anniversary). Other Jewish cultural and economic bodies included the Palestine Economic Corporation, while the Zionist Organization in Germany published its “Palästina Bilderbuch.”

Later, when World War II broke out, Jewish volunteers to certain units in the British army (there were no Arab volunteers…) proudly displayed the name “Palestine” on their shoulder patches.

ALTHOUGH GINGRICH may have his facts straight, he is wrong in practice.

The Palestinians may indeed be an invented people, but this invention is now a fact of political life, 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.

Palestinian statehood is often depicted as a paramount Israeli self-interest.

In some respects it perhaps is – if one wants to keep Israel Jewish and democratic, but in ideological and historical terms, it is a supreme Jewish sacrifice and concession whose wounds will not heal quickly and whose consequences cannot yet be foreseen.

Nor will the creation of a Palestinian state guarantee an end to the Arab-Jewish conflict – especially in view of the upheavals in the Arab and Islamic worlds. In any case, the more relevant questions for Israel and for those who support her is what sort of state will a future Palestine be? What are to be its borders? 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 military presence in strategic areas such as the Jordan valley, be ascertained? Also, how to assure that a future Palestinian State won’t become another terrorist Gaza (an eventuality which looks more than plausible in view of the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement) or that it won’t enter into military agreements with countries like Iran.

Under different circumstances, Palestinian statehood might perhaps have been avoided – there were other alternatives – but as a result of the unfortunate Oslo Accords and of other mistakes committed by Israel, it has now become more or less inevitable (unless the Palestinians themselves abort it by continuing their present tactics of refusing to negotiate).

Thus, Gingrich deserves praise for stating the historical truth – but he and other American candidates for the top job should now give their attention to the practical implications of the fact that this truth has been overtaken by events.

The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

 
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