The scene at Tommy’s Ham House restaurant, in Greenville, South Carolina, last Saturday morning, where Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich went for a last-minute campaign stop was a madhouse of people screaming and cheering for their candidate.
This famous Greenville restaurant was jammed with more than 500 people, both regulars there for breakfast and loud supporters of both candidates who descended on the restaurant to catch a glimpse or shake hands with Romney or Gingrich.
Although Romney came in first and commanded sizable support and applause from the audience, it was Gingrich who rocked the place when he arrived. Compared to his previous appearances that I attended around the state, which were mainly low-key affairs to which he did not attract many people, Gingrich appeared on Election Day as the man of the people, a man who was destined to win. His rise to uncharted heights in the polls was largely due to his performance in a CNN debate a few days earlier.
But ever since the former U.S. representative said during a television interview in December 2011 that “the Palestinian people are an invented people” he has been the most controversial and reviled Republican figure in the Arab world and among Arab and Muslim American voters.
Last week I had a chance to meet him and ask about his “invented people” statement and whether he would endorse an American Muslim as president of the United States. And given that he thinks the Palestinian people were an invented people, I asked him if they should just become Israeli citizens, or if not, what would he suggest happen to them.
He answered in his vintage style of professorial confidence that appears to lend him credibility no matter how intellectually questionable his answers are.
He replied by saying what every major American politician from the president on down would say on this subject, and that is by putting conditions that must be satisfied before the Palestinians are either recognized as peace partners or as people who have the right to live in their own free and independent state.
“If the Hamas and the PLO recognize Israel’s right to exist and they meant it, and they hunt down and stop the terrorists and the bombing, I would favor peace with the Palestinians and I would favor an independent Palestinian state,” he said.
Ray Hanania a Palestinian-American columnist and radio talk show host said in response to Mr. Gingrich’s statement: “This is like the U.S. Congress asking the government to end crime in the streets of America as a condition of balancing the budget.”
On the right of return, Gingrich was adamant in his opposition and stated that “there is no natural right of return; East Germans have no right of return to Poland, Greeks have no right of return to return to Turkey, and Poles have no right to return to Russia.”
The first part of Gingrich’s answer was rather a safe political statement by American political standards when it comes to Israel, and the second part of his answer that dealt with the right of return did stray from the fundamental Israeli and American position on this particular issue. The difference in Gingrich’s answer, however, was that he wrapped it in a rather shaky intellectual argument by providing historical analogies that are not applicable to the Palestinian issue.
Mohammad Dalbah, the president of the Washington Arab American Journalists Association, said that “Gingrich’s argument might have some traction had the Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 went on to live in another part of an independent Palestine. Just as the Greek refugees from Turkey went on to live in Greece or East Germans in Germany or Poles in Poland … but Palestinians have no state of Palestine to go back to.”
Palestinian-American political analyst Osama Abu Katta had his own take on Gingrich’s statements: “According to his argument, Jewish immigrants from around the world have no right to go to Palestine and take over that country claiming the right of return to their biblical lands.” He also questioned Gingrich’s lack of consideration of the Palestinian perspective and their suffering that resulted from the Israeli occupation.
On the question of a Muslim American for president, he began his answer with his classic air of confidence, saying that, “it depends if that person would be willing to commit in public to give up Sharia Law.”
He also stated that he is totally opposed to Sharia law and that he is in favor of a federal law that would prohibit its use in U.S. courts. He nevertheless would support a Muslim American running for president under these conditions.
The future Muslim president must be, according to Gingrich’s view, a watered-down Muslim, and this despite the fact that Mr. Gingrich fully knows that the American political system has a strict separation of powers clause and one’s faith has no place when it comes to government.
It is worth mentioning here, moreover, that the same argument about the Muslim president was said about a Catholic president 50 years ago when John F. Kennedy was running for president. During JFK’s run for president in 1960 questions were raised about his Catholic faith and whether he would impose the Catholic religion on the American people or let the Pope control the United States. Ironically, Gingrich, himself a Catholic running for president, is raising the same questions about the possibility of a Muslim running for president that were raised about another Catholic.
Ali Younes is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org