Apparently 7.6 million people like me had nothing better to do Saturday night than watch the twelfth GOP presidential debate. That’s the biggest audience by far to watch the Republicans to spar over who should lead the party against Barack Obama.
My 7.6 million fellow viewers didn’t learn much about foreign policy Saturday evening. ABC News, which sponsored the debate, let the candidates mix it up for a while on each question. That was a nice break from what had been the norm during the previous eleven debates—the moderators asking a question, seemingly getting bored after one or two responses, and then moving on to a new topic.
The downside to drilling down on one topic is that many fewer topics get addressed. So only one foreign policy topic came up Saturday night. Was it the rise of China? Protests in Russia? Iran’s nuclear program? Parliamentary elections in Egypt? Civil war in Syria? Troubled U.S.-Pakistani relations? The surge in Afghanistan? The future of Iraq? The eurozone crisis? The war on terror? Looming defense spending cuts?
Nope. It wasn’t any of those topics. Instead, the question of the evening was about Newt Gingrich’s claim late last week that the Palestinians are an "invented people." Now, it’s hard to know what to make of the speaker’s claim. After all, Americans are the quintessential “invented” people; we celebrate the fact that our forefathers (and mothers) “brought forth on this continent a new nation” in our civic religion. Even if the “invention” of the Palestinians is more recent, so what? As my colleague Elliott Abrams notes:
It is true that Palestinian nationalism is new, but so are Iraqi, Jordanian and Syrian nationalism; those nations were all created out of the Ottoman Empire after the First and Second World Wars. What’s the point? There is a very broad consensus in Israel to separate from the Palestinians, so either they get a state—which is the position taken by Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu—or there would need to be some kind of Jordanian option.
Nor does Gingrich’s remark necessarily mean that he opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To the contrary. On Saturday afternoon before the debate his campaign issued a statement saying that he:
supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israelis and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.
As empty as the discussion of invented people may be, it’s what ABC chose to focus on. As a result, we got to watch the GOP presidential candidates play amateur historian. Ron Paul made Elliott’s point that under the “Ottoman Empire, the Palestinians didn’t have a state, but neither did Israel have a state then too.” Gingrich doubled down on his original claim, then made the factually incorrect argument that “’Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977.” For good measure he added that “these people are terrorists,” thereby suggesting that he thinks all Palestinians are terrorists. (Does he? Presumably not because he favors a two-state solution. But none of his rivals asked him to clarify who precisely he was talking about.)
Mitt Romney had no problems with Gingrich’s history. He just thought saying such things publicly “makes it more difficult for him [Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu] to--to do his job.”(Romney also assured everyone that "I’m not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.")
Michele Bachmann noted that she once lived on a kibbutz and complained about hatred in Palestinian schoolbooks. Rick Santorum seemed to side with Romney on not speaking bluntly in public. Rick Perry dismissed Gingrich’s comment “as a minor issue—that the media is blowing—way out of proportion.” He was more interested in talking about the U.S. predator drone—actually an RQ-170 Sentinel surveillance drone—that Iran captured and Obama’s failure “to either retrieve that drone, or to destroy it.” (Perry didn’t consider the possibility that U.S. military leaders advised the president that both options were impossible.)
Lost in this exchange of views is what U.S. policy should be toward Israel and Palestine. Is a two-state solution still the right goal of U.S. policy? If so, how should the United States proceed? How does it intersect with other goals in the region? Would Gingrich terminate all U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority? What precisely would Romney say to the Israelis in private? How would Bachmann or Santorum nurture the very real progress the West Bank has made under Salam Fayyad?
The GOP candidates seemingly don’t have much to say on these questions. That’s too bad. If any of them succeed in unseating Barack Obama, those are exactly the kinds of questions they will have to answer. And they won’t get do-overs if they get them wrong.