Chemi Shalev
Haaretz (Interview)
December 13, 2011 - 1:00am

Republican candidate Newt Gingrich’s characterization of the Palestinians as an “invented” people is an “alarming attempt to diminish the Palestinian people and to diminish Palestinian history,” according to David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Remnick also took a dim view of the support that various Republican candidates have given to positions that are to the right of the Israeli public and its government. “That’s what happens when pandering is married to ignorance," he said, “It’s out of synch and out groove with what the arguments are. And it’s sad.”

In a blog post in the New Yorker this week Remnick lambasted Gingrich and ascribed his declarations on the Palestinians to the “discredited” book by Joan Peters “From Time Immemorial”. He says that there are “lots and lots of nationalities that are ‘invented’ – not least of which Americans and Israelis” but Gingrich “knew what he was doing: signaling a cultural and political disdain for the Palestinians as a people."

Remnick – who features on the Web in a YouTube recording from April in which he says that “Gingrich is cooked” and would most likely not be the Republican candidate in 2012 – now adds that if Gingrich does win the nomination, “the Republican party will have a real problem.”

“The Republican Party establishment cannot stand Newt Gingrich. They didn’t even like Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House. They find him grandiose, self-regarding, incredibly arrogant and prone to making mistakes on a colossal and self-destructive level. They fear him,” Remnick said. "Barak Obama and his team at the White House are salivating at the chance of running against Newt Gingrich.”

Remnick said that the Republicans are trying to “soften” the Jewish vote in the hope of attracting Jewish campaign contributions and of getting more votes in such swing states as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. But he said it’s too early to tell whether the effort will succeed.

Following is a transcript of the phone interview with Remnick

Q. How do you view the extraordinary presence of Israel in the Republican race?

Remnick: Well, it’s not unprecedented. Israel even figures into things like New York mayoral races, as if the New York mayor had a foreign policy. So it’s not surprising that it would make an appearance to some degree or another, but you’re right, it’s a larger one this time around. The reason is very simple: it is the hope of the Republican Party that the criticism of Obama regarding the Middle East and Netanyahu and everything related to it will somehow translate into a softening Jewish vote, that last time gave Obama 78%, second only to the African American community.

The Republicans won’t get a majority [of the Jewish votes] but they hope to get more votes in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and especially Florida. And I think they are also hoping to see if they can get some money from the obvious corners in the Jewish community. It’s not a secret to them that in terms of campaign contributions, Jewish Americans give quite a lot of money.

And at the same time it’s a signal to the Christian Evangelical community as well, it’s not just the Jewish vote. It’s part of a package for Christian Evangelicals.

So when Newt Gingrich uses the word “invented” people, this is a kind of signaling. He’s not just bashing Obama for being “too tough on Netanyahu”, he’s also signaling a cultural and political disdain for the Palestinians as a people – which I find extremely alarming.

Q. Alarming from what point of view?

Remnick: Because you know where this comes from. If your ears are turned the right way you know this kind of language has a history. On the one hand, lots and lots of nationalisms and nationalities on the face of this earth are “invented” or self-created, not least Israelis or Americans. But that’s not why he said it. He said it to diminish Palestinian claims, to diminish Palestinian history, in a particular political context, and believe me, Newt Gingrich knows what he’s doing. I wrote this blog piece suggesting that language like this has a history: there was a book that was a kind of totemic book on the right, unfortunately celebrated by some surprising people, and it was called “From Time Immemorial” by Joan Peters, and it was a big bestseller here, until it was discredited very roundly and very thoroughly, and not just by Norman Finkelstein.

Q. But most of the Republican candidates have made outlandish statements, though they just didn’t get the same attention: Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain and Rick Perry and even Jon Huntsman. Perry said that Israel can build settlements to its heart’s content, Bachmann said that Israel doesn’t have to give back one inch of territory – ever….

Remnick: It’s what happens when pandering is marred with ignorance of the issues. It’s so out of synch and out of groove of what the arguments are. And it’s sad. Because somehow they perceive that this is what people want to hear.

Q. But with Bachmann it’s a matter of faith...

Remnick: I don’t know. What’s fun about Bachmann is that here is someone who is as right wing as can possibly be imagined, who celebrates her time in a collectivist experiment in Israel. To hear her go on and on about kibbutzim is quite wonderful…

Q. Do you think that the average American is dismayed by the fact that Israel has been the major foreign policy issue that’s been discussed in the Republican debate?

Remnick: It is kind of strange. Of course foreign policy is not the greatest concern for most Americans – it’s the economy, the economy, the economy - but if you ask about foreign policy, the greatest concern has to be China, because of the economic ramifications on American jobs and American finances and American economic standing. Not Israel.

But you don’t always talk to a broad audience, sometimes you’re talking to a narrow-band audience when you’re speaking publicly or in a debate, and I think this is one of those instances. Gingrich in was talking to a Jewish cable channel which has, let’s say, minimal presence, but it was a narrow-band well-aimed arguably cynical piece of rhetoric.

But I think that most people don’t care. It’s not what their listening for. It goes by them, you know, like the March winds go by them.

Q. Do you expect the Republican rhetoric to change once they chosen a candidate?

Remnick: Well, it depends who that candidate is.

Q. If it’s Gingrich

Remnick: If it’s Gingrich, then the Republicans have a real problem. The Republican Party establishment cannot stand Newt Gingrich. They didn’t even like Gingrich when he was Speaker of the House. They find him grandiose, self-regarding, incredibly arrogant and prone to making mistakes on a colossal and self-destructive level. They fear him but they also know that he’s extremely skilled in certain ways, as he showed in Saturday night’s debate, in that moment when Romney was blathering about being a businessman and not a career politician and Gingrich just lanced that with one remark: “you didn’t become a career politician because you lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994”, and all the air and color went out of Mitt Romney.

This is not Rick Perry. Rick Perry has no skills, in this regard. Rick Perry is vapid by comparison. Newt Gingrich has certain skills, and also his timing is exquisite. How many Republicans have we had as alternatives to Romney? We’ve had Palin, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain, all of whom were the flavor of the month and then they all self-destructed in one way or another. Suddenly Gingrich emerges, he who basically was a mid-90’s comet who succeeded and then flamed out. This is now 16 years later, and he’s leading in South Carolina, and in Iowa, and the only reason he’s not winning in New Hampshire is probably for geographical reasons (Romney is more or less from there). So he’s well-positioned in terms of timing.

Q. But you said the Republican Party would be in trouble with him

Remnick: I think Barak Obama and his team at the White House are salivating at the chance of running against Newt Gingrich.

Q. But given the current mood and situation in America, strange things can happen…

Remnick: Unfortunately, you’re right.

Q. And, if I might make another Israeli observation, Ariel Sharon is a good example of how politicians pay only once for their “crimes and misdemeanors”

Remnick: Arik Sharon is not Newt Gingrich. Arik Sharon, there’s no way to discount his “crimes”, especially the 1982 war, but he had a connection to a broad swath of Israelis who saw him as an emotional and political champion in a way that Newt Gingrich does not. The thing that is rallying the Republican base most is not any one candidate, but the economic pain, there’s no question about that, but it’s also a loathing for Barak Obama, for various reasons.

But if I was the Republicans, I would be concerned. Look, the economy is a misery, and it’s going to be misery for quite a while. Then why is it that in a state like South Carolina – South Carolina! – Obama is beating both Romney and Gingrich. How is that possible?

Q. So what’s your answer?

Remnick: Well, I just don’t think the Republican Party is very enamored with either one of these guys. In the end, Barack Obama is not running against the ideal, he’s not running against his own poll numbers, he’s not even running against even an unemployment figure, which is very damaging. Sooner or later he will run against a Republican, a real human being, and neither one of them, Romney or Gingrich, for different reasons, is gathering much excitement. And it’s starting to get late. I mean, obviously we have ten months to go, and anything can happen in American politics (and usually does) but we are three weeks from Iowa, and from there it starts to tumble. It goes on forever, but there’s a certain momentum that occurs come January or February. Timing is everything, in comedy and in politics.

Q. So let’s get back to where we started – what do you think about the Republican hope to pry away Jewish votes from the Democrats.

Remnick: I couldn’t say; events will tell. Prediction journalism is bad business for a journalist. I just think it’s chazzerai. It’s hard enough to make sense of things, much less try to predict the future, especially in such a volatile political situation.


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