It happens every four years: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict crops up as an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich brought it to the fore this year when he told The Jewish Channel, a cable channel, that the Palestinians were “an invented people.”
The remark was a focal point of the Republican debate on Saturday evening, during which Gingrich defended his earlier comment and also called the Palestinians “terrorists.” This has also sent sparks flying among Palestinians, while many Israelis see it more in terms of U.S. domestic politics than as a serious discussion on U.S. foreign policy.
“It is unbelievable that Mr. Gingrich, who studied history at two outstanding American universities and even taught history, could make such a misguided comment, solely for the sake of political pandering,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent Palestinian legislator. “Not only did Mr. Gingrich downright reject centuries of history and an important cultural legacy, Mr. Gingrich labeled us as terrorists.”
Natalie Fish, a 38-year-old Jewish American, also thought that Republicans in general have been pandering to Jewish voters in the U.S.
Fish was in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, an area popular among Jewish American expats who tend to keep up with U.S. politics. She cited a recent event “with all the [Republican] candidates saying what they had done in Israel and using their little bit of Hebrew. They’re just looking for the vote.”
Gerald Steinberg of the NGO Monitor, a conservative group, says the support by Democratic or Republican candidates doesn’t necessarily help Israel. He said that partisan remarks can actually diminish bipartisan U.S. support for Israel.
“A lot of Israelis, including me, are disturbed by the degree to which policies over Israel, debates over Israel, slogans about Israel, are so centered in the American primaries and political process,” Steinberg said.
Arabs Criticize Gingrich
Gingrich’s remarks drew harsh criticism not just from Palestinians, but from across the Arab world.
Mohammed Sobeih, the Arab League official who handles Palestinian affairs, said the comments by Gingrich were “irresponsible and dangerous.”
“If an Arab or Palestinian official said a racist comment that was one-millionth of what the U.S. candidate said, the world would have been in continuous uproar,” Sobeih said.
The Palestinians are seeking an independent state, which they have never had. The Ottomans ruled the region for four centuries until the British received a mandate following World War I. After World War II, the United Nations proposed separate states for the Israelis and the Palestinians, but the plan was rejected by the Arabs. While the U.N. proposal was never implemented, Israel declared independence in 1948, while the Palestinians are still on a quest for statehood.
While an earlier generation of Israeli leaders may have questioned whether Palestinians deserved statehood, polls in Israel consistently show that a majority would now accept a Palestinian state in exchange for a peace agreement ending the decades-old conflict.
Rachel Liel, head of the New Israel Fund, a liberal group, says that mainstream Israel would disagree with Gingrich’s sentiments.
“I think this comment is bad for Israel,” she said. “There is a Palestinian people, and everyone knows that. Besides, I think it’s [disrespectful] to our neighbors the Palestinians, and it really kind of blocks the possibility to continue for peace.”
But some Israelis supported Gingrich.
“It was very sincere and very right, the things he said,” according to Danny Dayan, a leader among West Bank settlers. “I’m glad he had the courage to say that.”