The Chosen People?

In their race to be elected, the GOP presidential candidates are confusing what country they're running for: Israel or the United States.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

At times during Saturday, Dec. 10’s Republican presidential debate, it was hard to figure out whether the GOP aspirants were running for president of the United States or prime minister of Israel. With the notable exception of Ron Paul, each of the major GOP candidates practically fell over themselves to express solidarity with a country that, in their narrative, appears to not only be the most important U.S. ally in the world, but a country that simply can do no wrong.

It all began when, in answering a question related to his earlier assertion that the Palestinians are an "invented" people (unlike, say Americans), Newt Gingrich offered one of the most toxic attacks you’re ever about to hear in a presidential debate against any national people.

He started off by implicitly arguing that Palestinians are in cahoots with "bin Ladens" and other Islamic "extremists." He suggested that Palestinian rockets fly into Israel every single day, which simply isn’t true (though Israel is subject to more than occasional rocket fire from Gaza), but had little to say about violence against Palestinians like the killing last week of Mustafa Tamimi, who was shot at point-blank range by a 40-mm tear-gas canister during a protest in the West Bank city of al-Nabi Saleh. He also said that the term "Palestinian" did not become a common expression until 1977 — something that may come as a shock to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was created in 1964.

That in and of itself was unpleasant, but Gingrich doubled down arguing, "Somebody oughta have the courage to tell the truth: These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools." If Newt was singling out specific Palestinian terrorists — rather than the entire population of approximately 4 million people who live in the West Bank and Gaza — he didn’t bother to make that distinction clear. It’s very difficult to imagine the front-runner for a presidential nomination making such a statement about any other group of people.

What was perhaps most shocking about Gingrich’s comments is that they are significantly more dismissive of the Palestinians than those of most Israeli politicians. Indeed, Gingrich’s words sounded like the statements of fringe elements of the Israeli right. But if Saturday’s debate was any indication, this now appears to reflect a mainstream view among Republican presidential aspirants.

When asked whether he shared former House Speaker Gingrich’s view, Mitt Romney could only muster one area of disagreement — that Gingrich called Palestinians "invented people." He was apparently untroubled by the statement that "these people are terrorists."

According to Romney, the problem with U.S. policy in the region is that President Barack Obama’s administration is getting out "ahead of" the Israeli government. Indeed, Romney appeared to be suggesting that U.S. policymakers should avoid any comment about the peace process or the Palestinians that the Israeli government doesn’t want "to hear."

"We let the Israeli leadership describe what they believe the right course is going forward," said Romney. "We don’t negotiate for the Israeli people." This would, more or less, give the Israeli government a veto over U.S. foreign-policy decision-making not just when it came to the Mideast peace process but indeed any issue that affected the Israeli government. As Romney proudly declared later, before making a statement like Gingrich’s he would call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ask him, "Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do? Let’s work together, because we’re partners." That’s one odd-sounding partnership — and it’s unclear how it’s beneficial to the United States.

Rick Santorum, not to be left behind in seeking to slavishly win the backing of Israel’s supporters in the GOP electorate, expressed agreement with Romney’s sentiment and then went even further by saying, "Israelis have the right to determine what happens in their land. And all of Israel, including the quote, you know, West Bank, is Israeli land." Again, this view of the West Bank’s status is in direct opposition to decades of U.S. policy toward the region, including that of the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush. It would seem to suggest that there really is no reason for an Arab-Israeli peace process. After all, according to Santorum, it’s "Israeli land."

The comments about Israel, however, weren’t the most off-the-wall foreign-policy things said at Saturday’s debate. It wasn’t even Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s claim that "radical Islamists" are running Egypt — an assertion that is simply not true even though the Muslim Brotherhood and religious parties performed well in the recent parliamentary elections. Before and after that vote it is still, for better or worse, the Egyptian military that remains in charge in Egypt. Rather, it came when Gingrich praised Santorum for his advocacy against the mullahs in Tehran, saying, "If we do survive, it will be in part because of people like Rick who’ve had the courage to tell the truth about the Iranians for a long time." When speaking of American "survival" one can only presume that Gingrich was referring to Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, a notion so off-the-wall … well, I’ll turn things over to my FP colleague Dan Drezner, who I think summed it up best.

But this is basically par for the course in GOP debates: Any enemy of Israel is an enemy of the United States, and any threat to Israel is a supremely magnified threat to the United States. In last month’s national security debate in Washington, Romney said no price is too large to be paid in stopping Iran from getting a bomb. To be clear, an Iranian nuke, though certainly problematic and troubling for the region, poses no threat to America’s survival and barely poses a serious threat to U.S. national security interests. (Israel, of course, is another story).

There was a great deal of controversy in Washington last week about the way that some foreign-policy commentators describe the U.S. relationship to Israel — with some intimating in the pages of Politico that those who don’t walk in lock step with the current Israeli government are either anti-Israeli or "borderline anti-Semitic."

This is an old game in U.S. foreign-policy debates — and one that was on full display Saturday night. But perhaps the greater area of inquiry would be to look at how Americans have reached a point in their political discourse where the behavior of Israel can go virtually unquestioned and the national characteristics of the Palestinian people can be described in the most odious — and borderline racist — terms imaginable without it raising even a hint of controversy.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.