The region we now call the Middle East is an elaborate mosaic. Among its peoples are the Arabs, denizens of the desert who became great conquerors and colonists. The Persians possessed a mighty empire in antiquity — and will again if Iran’s current rulers have their way. The most vibrant city of the Turks is Istanbul, the Christian capital known as Constantinople until it fell to Sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century. The Middle East also is home to such ethno-religious groups as Maronites, Druze, and Alawites; to powerful clans such as the Hashemites and the House of Sa’ud; to Kurds, a nation without a state, and to Jews, reestablished as a nation in their ancient homeland.
The other day, Newt Gingrich waded into this historical labyrinth, setting off a minor brouhaha by noting that only recently did Arabs on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean claim to constitute a distinct nation called “Palestine” — the name given to the area by Imperial Rome. On this basis, he referred to Palestinians as an “invented” people.
The accuracy of his statement is beyond dispute. In the wake of the Second World War, when the United Nations recommended partitioning Palestine into two states, it did not use the term “Palestinian” to refer to Arab-speaking residents. At that time, pan-Arabism, the idea of forming a single, united Arab nation, was far more compelling than any parochial identification. The question was how to divide what, for 400 years, had been a corner of the Ottoman Empire between the Arabs of Palestine and the Jews of Palestine. Of the two, the latter were, at that time, more commonly referred to as Palestinians. Their newspaper was the Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post), their contributions to the performing arts included the Palestine Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic), and their American-based charitable organization was the United Palestine Appeal.
From 1948 until 1967, Gaza and the West Bank were under Egyptian and Jordanian control respectively. No serious demands for a Palestinian state were heard. Only after Israel took possession of those territories in a defensive war against Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states did Palestinian nationhood become the central issue in what had been, until then, the Arab- Israeli conflict.
Gingrich was attacked from many quarters, among them the New York Times, where foreign-affairs columnist H. D. S. Greenway acknowledged that the former Speaker “is right that there has never been a state called Palestine” and that “Palestinian nationalism grew up as a mirror image of Israeli nationalism.” So what’s the problem? Greenway charges that Gingrich intended to “imply that the Palestinians are not worthy of a country of their own.”
Gingrich insists he meant no such thing. Anyone familiar with his thinking would not doubt that. After all, Americans are an invented people. Can you imagine Gingrich arguing that makes Americans less worthy of nationhood than, say, the Japanese?
Like most of us, Gingrich favors a two-state solution similar to the one the Palestinians were offered in 1948 and at Camp David in 2000. In these and other instances, the Palestinians said no. What does that imply? Perhaps that Palestinians — or at least those who lead them — are themselves insufficiently nationalistic.