Watching the GOP debate last night, it was frustrating to see Newt Gingrich's opponents stammer and fumble in search of a critique of his latest inflammatory rhetoric. If nothing else, the irony that Newt Gingrich, perhaps the American politician with the greatest gift for self-invention and reinvention, should judge the Palestinian people as "invented," is too rich to miss. It is perhaps too much to expect that a current GOP candidate could formulate an effective response in this context, however. All contenders last night were looking forward toward the general election, thus the polemical impotence of Newt's rivals on this score is an acknowledgment that he had stolen a march on them, finding just the right tone on this issue to score points with constituencies that will matter.
It is hard to know which possibility is worse in this case, that Newt's words were cynical or misguided. As a historian and a former professor, he surely knows that the question of whether (or when, or how) the "Palestinian people" were "invented" is entirely academic. "Palestine" is no more or less an invention than "Israel," arguments over which nation exists more "in essence" are hopelessly semantic. As I watched last night's debate, I waited in vain for someone to ask, "What exactly is your point, Newt? How does the 'inventedness' of the Palestinian people change the facts on the ground?"
The answer, of course, is that it does not. If the West Bank and Gaza were to be annexed by Israel today, it would no longer be a majority-Jewish state. At that point the Palestinian people, through the exercise of their franchise, would be free to invent whatever Palestine they would like, at the expense of Israel's very existence. Arguments over which nation is more organically "real" do not change that fact one iota. For Israel to remain true to its Zionist principles, a two-state solution must be effected.
No one on the dais last night in Iowa had the courage to call out Newt Gingrich on his bombast, perhaps sensing that the truth was a political loser for the GOP in the long term. President Obama is hurt by the widespread (though erroneous) perception that his support for a two-state solution makes him anti-Israeli. One can only hope, for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians, that the current Gingrichian moment is not a harbinger of things to come.