Note to Newt (Part I): Uninventing Palestinians

Dec 19, 2011

I think there is an Arab nation. I do not think there is a Palestinian nation. I think it’s a colonialist invention… When were there any Palestinians? …until the 19th century Palestine was the south of greater Syria. – Azmi Bishara, 1994

I think we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. – Newt Gingrich, 2011

Newt Gingrich is to be warmly commended on his recent statement underscoring the lack of authenticity of Palestinian nationality.

It is rare that someone of such public stature has the courage to give facts precedence over political correctness in his public pronouncements. It certainly has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons, sending analysts and activists scurrying for their history books in feverish search for passages or interpretations of passages that reaffirm or refute Gingrich’s assertion, depending on their political predilections.

Coming from the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination it is a declaration that could have a profound impact, not only as a much needed clarification of Middle East history, but more important, as a vital signposting for Middle East policy in days to come.

For Gingrich is totally correct when he observes that “… there’s a lot to think about in terms of how fundamentally you want to change the terms of debate in the region.”

It is to be hoped his provocative and perceptive declaration will serve as a catalyst for a sorely overdue rethink of that debate’s fundamental issues.

Conditions for lasting impact
Whether or not his depiction of the Palestinians as an artificially “invented people” has a lasting effect depends on two conditions being met.

The first is to demonstrate that Gingrich’s assertion is not only historically accurate, but a policy-pertinent characteristic of the Palestinians today — not because pro-Israeli sources claim it is, but because pro-Palestinian sources concede it is.

The second condition is almost a corollary of the first. For if the Palestinians can be shown not only to be an artificial construct in a historical context, but an inauthentic national entity in the modern political context, then clearly this must strip the notion of a Palestinian state and the “two-state solution” of any validity. What would be the rationale for the establishment of a state for a bogus people?

But for this to translate into practical political action, one must be able to put forward a cogent, comprehensive alternative paradigm for dealing with the issue of the Palestinians Arabs.

For even if they were — and are — an invented people, some persuasive program must be advanced for addressing the fact of their physical existence. In the absence of such program being assertively promoted, inertia is likely leave the “two-states-for-two-people” option as the de facto default policy — even if one of those two peoples is a non-people.

Dividing the discussion
The potential ramifications of Gingrich’s bold diagnosis — for both discourse and policy prescription — are so far-ranging and significant that adequate discussion of them would exceed the limits of a single opinion column.

Accordingly, I will split this discussion into two parts.

This week, I will focus on showing that not only is the characterization of the Palestinians as an invented people historically true, but it continues to be politically valid today.

Next week, I will elaborate the components and rationale of a comprehensive alternative paradigm to the two-state principle to resolve the Palestinian issue, and to allow the pursuit of policy that recognizes the futility of establishing a state to accommodate an illusionary people.

These two complementary endeavors are aimed at meeting the previously mentioned conditions required to translate the potential created by Gingrich’s intrepid interview into practical and lasting policy initiatives, to replace conventional wisdom — which has been so regularly disproved but somehow never discredited.

Negation of ‘other’
Gingrich’s reference to “invented people” induced a flood of articles, analyzing the relevant periods of history and convincingly conveying the lack of historical depth for the any claim that the Palestinians constitute a genuinely cohesive national entity.

However, as others have pointed out, similar claims could be plausibly advanced for numerous other entities that emerged from the breakup of empires in general and of the Ottoman Empire in particular, and have — with varying degrees of success — coalesced into functioning nations.

But the case of the Palestinian collective is different.

It is defined not by what it is, but what is not; not by what it wishes to achieve, but what it wishes to prevent; not by what it wants to create, but by what it wants to eliminate.

It has no independent rationale – apart from the denial of Jewish nationhood — to sustain it. As such it is not an affirmation of national “self” but a negation of a national “other.”

Jordan’s King Hussein underscored precisely this when he remarked that the emergence of collective Palestinian identity was merely a ploy to counter Jewish claims to territory considered “Arab.”

At the Arab League meeting in Amman in November 1987, he said: “The appearance of the Palestinian national personality comes as an answer to Israel’s claim that Palestine is Jewish.”

This is precisely the sentiment conveyed a decade earlier by the now oft-cited and largely uncontested remark by Zuhair Muhsin, former head of the PLO’s Military Department and an Executive Council member, in which he candidly conceded to a Dutch daily: “… the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”

This is not the stuff that real nations are made of, or tenable nation-states founded on.

Historically fictitious, politically fraudulent
The usually dovish former Mossad head Efraim Halevy cast doubt on the Palestinians’ “capability of nationhood” in a 2009 interview with the Canadian weekly Maclean’s. He identified a lack of internal drive for nationhood, warning, “A nation has to be built from within… the Palestinians are not creating their own nation. The nation is being created from without. This… cannot succeed.”

In two recent columns, I addressed the nature and purpose of the Palestinians’ collective identity — on the basis of their own deeds, declarations and documents. These are some of the points made in them:

Even the Palestinians’ own “National Charter” reveals that they are not — and do not see themselves — as a genuinely distinct people or a cohesive nation, with a coherently defined homeland. Thus the Palestinians not only affirm that their national demands are bogus, but that they are merely a temporary ruse meant to annul what they term “the illegal 1947 partition of Palestine” (i.e. Israel in its entirety): “The Palestinian people are a part of the Arab Nation… [and] believe in Arab unity…. However, they must, at the present stage of their struggle, safeguard their Palestinian identity and develop their consciousness of that identity.”

How is any fair-minded person to avoid concluding that at a later stage there will be no need to preserve their identity or to develop consciousness thereof? How is one to avoid concluding that Palestinian identity is merely a short-term deception designed to achieve the political goal of eliminating the Jewish nation-state?

Significantly, the urge for Palestinian sovereignty only seems to arise in response to the manifestation of Jewish sovereignty. Thus the 1964 version of their National Charter unequivocally forswears Palestinian claims to “any territorial sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Gaza,” areas which are now stridently claimed to comprise their “ancient homeland.”

Palestinians did not object to almost two decades of Jordanian and Egyptian authority, nor does the solid Palestinian majority in Jordan today seem highly motivated to express its distinct “national identity.”

And while the possibility of a revolution in Jordan cannot be discounted, this would most likely be motivated by the same factors that precipitated revolutions in other parts of the Arab world – dissatisfaction with the regime rather than desire to throw off alien sovereignty.

We are thus compelled to concede that “Palestinian nationality” is devoid of any independent existence, but is fabricated only to counteract Jewish territorial claims.

Indeed, without such claims there would be no Palestinian nationality. As such it is a fictional derivative — an invention — precisely as claimed by Azmi Bishara, Zuhair Muhsin, King Hussein, the Palestinian National Charter — and of course by Newt Gingrich.

Contrived statelessness
If any further evidence of deception were needed, consider the issue of the “statelessness” of the Palestinians – one of the major themes played upon to invoke sympathy for their “cause” and fierce recriminations against Israel.

In reality, however, this state of “stateless” is not a result of callous Israeli malfeasance but of deliberate Arab malevolence.

For the Palestinians are stateless because the Arabs have either stripped them of citizenship they already had, or precluded them from acquiring citizenship they desire to have.

In the “West Bank,” for example, up until 1988, all Palestinians, including the refugees, held Jordanian citizenship. This was annulled by King Hussein when he relinquished his claim to this territory. This abrupt and brusque measure was described by Anis F. Kassim, a prominent Palestinian legal expert, in the following terms: “… more than 1.5 million Palestinians went to bed on 31 July 1988 as Jordanian citizens, and woke up on 1 August 1988 as stateless persons.”

But Palestinians have also been prohibited from acquiring citizenship in their countries of residence in the Arab world, where they have lived for over half a century. The Arab League has instructed its members to deny citizenship to Palestinian Arabs resident within their frontiers, “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.”

Thus Arab League spokesman Hisham Youssef conceded in an 2004 interview to the Los Angeles Times that Palestinians in the Arab world live “in very bad conditions,” but added that this official policy is meant “to preserve their Palestinian identity,” which apparently is incapable of existence without coercion. With breathtaking callousness, he went on to assert that “if every Palestinian who sought refuge in a certain country was integrated and accommodated into that country, there won’t be any reason for them to return to Palestine.” Indeed.

Clearly, Palestinian nationalism is being preserved and pursued with greater zeal by their Arab brethren than by the Palestinians themselves. How then can it be considered anything but an artificially contrived invention?

Embarrassing silence
Gingrich’s declaration has indeed opened up a chance to “fundamentally change the terms of debate in the region.”

Sadly, Israeli officialdom has not risen to the occasion. Overall, the response to the momentous opportunity that Gingrich has opened up has been met with an embarrassed silence.

This is a lamentable and embarrassing reflection on the state of Israeli diplomacy, which has apparently maneuvered itself into a position of such weakness that it cannot embrace support provided it by the leading Republican presidential candidate.

The captains of Israeli foreign policy would do well to heed his perceptive insight: “This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage… We refuse to tell the truth when the other side lies…. You’re not going to win the long run if you’re afraid to stand firm and stand for the truth.” Precisely.

To have any hope of victory Israel must cease its complicity in Arab duplicity. The time has come for a concerted effort to uninvent the Palestinians.

Can this done? An observation by Daniel Pipes suggests that it may well be possible: “…the fact that this [Palestinian] identity is of such recent and expedient origins suggests that…. it could eventually come to an end, perhaps as quickly as it got started.”

Next week’s column will propose a strategy to pursue this objective.