The Palestinians are an "invented" people, Newt Gingrich said on Friday, taking the recent effort among Republican presidential candidates to woo Jewish voters to a new level.
All the GOP presidential candidates have been angling to capitalize on U.S. President Barack Obama's eroding support among some Jewish groups and present themselves as extremely pro-Israel, and Gingrich, the former speaker of the house, is currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
In a Dec. 9 interview with the Jewish Channel, a U.S. cable television outlet, Gingrich said that his strong pro-Israeli credentials go back to his days as speaker of the house, when he was third for the presidency, and went so far as to all but endorse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies.
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Asked if he considers himself a Zionist, Gingrich said he approved of the notion that Jews should have a state of their own in Israel, adding that when this idea was first floated in the early 20th century there was no Palestinian national movement. According to Gingrich, Palestinians were just part of the larger Arab community, at a time when there were no nation states in the region. "Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire," he said.
"I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it’s tragic," Gingrich explained, echoing previous statements he has made on the issue.
Gingrich, whose campaign had been all but written off last summer, has surprisingly turned things around to become the top contender alongside former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as other candidates have fallen by the wayside. During the interview he recalled his days as speaker of the house during the 1990s, when he fought to have the Israeli Embassy relocated to Jerusalem, despite President Bill Clinton's concern this might undermine the delicate peace process he was shepherding at the time. Asked how he views the current deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Gingrich blamed the Palestinian Authority for failing to engage in meaningful negotiations and for shying away from a confrontation with its rival Hamas faction.
"Well, I think it’s delusional to call it a peace process. I mean, we have an armed truce with a Palestinian Authority that’s relatively weak. And on its flank is a Hamas authority which may become relatively weak, because it can’t deliver anything," he said, adding that both camps have "an enormous desire to destroy Israel."
"Frankly, given their school system and the hatred they teach in their schools, often with money that comes from us through the United Nations, I mean I think there’s a lot to think about in terms of how fundamentally you want to change the terms of debate in the region," Gingrich said.
In what may be considered another attempt to distance himself from Obama's perceived lack of chemistry with the Israeli prime minister and alleged hostility toward him over policy differences, Gingrich indicated he shares the Israeli leader's world view.
"I see myself as in many ways being pretty close to Bibi Netanyahu in thinking about the dangers of the world. I believe in a tough-minded realism," Gingrich said, in response to a question on his view of current Israeli policy positions.
He went on to praise the prime minister's record both on fighting terrorism and on the economy. "Bibi is a very tough guy, and he’s a guy who really puts Israel’s security first. He also happens to be a very free market guy, and somebody who helped create the entrepreneurial boom that has made Israel so successful. And I think he’s always been willing to cut through the red tape, but he’s never for a minute wavered in his commitment to Israeli security. I think we need an American president who starts by focusing on American security, recognizes Israel is an ally, it’s an important country. We are natural friends and allies, but let’s start with what is in America’s interest and let’s do it."
Gingrich went on to claim Israel is not at fault for the lack of progress in the peace process. "I believe that if somebody is firing rockets at you, they are probably not engaged in the peace process. I believe if somebody goes around and says you don’t have a right to exist, they’re probably not prepared to negotiate for peace. I think if someone says they wanna wipe you out, you should believe them."
Gingrich made similar comments at a campaign event over the weekend. "When the president keeps talking about a peace process while Hamas keeps firing missiles into Israel, if we had a country next to us firing missiles, how eager would we be to sit down and negotiate?"
Palestinian government officials reacted with strong words to Gingrich's comments Saturday. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called Gingrich's apparent denial of Palestinian peoplehood a "cheap stunt" that is designed to curry favor with the Jewish electorate.
"Our people have been determined to stay on their land from the start," Fayyad told Palestinian news agency Wafa. "This, certainly, is denying historical truths, and this is unacceptable. Even the most extremist elements in Israel do not utter such words."
In an interview with CNN, Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat suggested that Gingrich's words might not serve U.S. interests, "as they may will be the ammunition and weapons of the bin Ladens and the extremists for a long, long time."
Arab-Israeli MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra'am Ta'al) also lashed out against the former speaker over the weekend, saying "Gingrich's lame and shameful comments should be thrown into the dustbin of history."
While Gingrich did not back down from his controversial assertion on Palestinian nationhood over the weekend, his campaign tried to frame it in a larger context. "To understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing," Gingrich spokesperson R.C. Hammond said on Saturday.
"Newt Gingrich supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state," Hammond added.
But on the Israeli side, some welcomed Gingrich's position. MK Danny Danon (Likud) praised his remarks, saying the Republican candidate "fully understands the reality we live in and the Middle East," and even went so far as to suggest Gingrich's statements reflect a broad Israeli consensus.
However, the notion that the Palestinians are not a people has long been discarded by mainstream Israeli parties, with polls showing Israelis have steadily warmed to the idea of an independent Palestinian entity alongside the Jewish state, with security guarantees, as a way of ensuring Israel's continued Jewish majority. During a major address in 2009, then newly elected Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had just formed a right wing coalition with hard line elements, said he would accept the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in portions of the West Bank provided that it does not pose a threat to Israeli security and interests.
In a conference call held with several Jewish activists on Friday, Gingrich also said that he would cut all U.S. aid to the Palestinians if they failed to meet strict standards set by his administration. He also reiterated his praise of Netanyahu, calling him a "personal friend."
Last week six of the seven Republican presidential candidates took to the podium at the Republican Jewish Coalition's Presidential Candidates Forum in Washington on Wednesday, all vying with each other in their praise for Israel and their effusive pledges to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas was not invited.
During the event Gingrich lashed out at the White House for its conduct toward Israel. "The fact that ... Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would talk about discrimination against women in Israel and then meet with the Saudis ..." he said, his voice trailing off as laughter erupted in the hall. Earlier this week, Clinton expressed alarm at what she said was a growing trend of religious exclusion of women in Israeli society.
The former House speaker drew repeated applause when he said he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and make hawkish Bush administration diplomat John Bolton his secretary of state.
Romney, who according to some polls is now trailing Gingrich, also earned a standing ovation from the several hundred participants in the audience when he said that U.S. President Barack Obama, by his actions, has "emboldened Palestinian hard-liners who now are poised to form a unity government with terrorist Hamas and feel they can bypass Israel at the bargaining table."
Romney said that "the president chastised Israel but said little about the thousand of Hamas rockets raining into its skies. He's publicly proposed that Israel adopt indefensible borders."
In October, Romney and Gingrich gave separate interviews to Israel Hayom's Boaz Bismuth, as did several other candidates in the Republican field. During the interview Gingrich touted the values Israel and the U.S. share and the common goals both countries have when it comes to Iran and the peace process.
When asked by Bismuth whether it is important to convince Iran that a military strike against its nuclear program is possible, Gingrich replied. "Certainly." He also attacked president Obama for his treatment of Israel. "The current president is fundamentally mistaken in the way he understands the world. He fundamentally errs regarding what needs to be done. For this reason, Obama is dangerous."
Meanwhile, with about three weeks to go before Iowa caucus-goers cast the first votes in the Republican race, candidates convened on Saturday for another televised debate, hosted by ABC News and other media outlets. All eyes were on Gingrich, the one-time long-shot who has become an overnight frontrunner. As expected, the debate saw several heated exchanges between Gingrich and his main rival Romney, who has recently stepped up his attacks on the former Washington insider to stem his rise in the polls.
The former governor attacked Gingrich for his comments on the Palestinians, saying he has inserted "incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot.”
According to one recent CNN poll, conducted before the debate, Gingrich has a sizeable lead in three of the four early states holding caucuses or primaries starting Jan. 3. Obama, on the other hand, is still struggling to regain his popularity. In a Fox News poll released over the weekend, 51% of respondents said they disapprove of the way Obama has handled his job. On what is likely a critical gauge of voter sentiment, 94% said the economy is in a bad shape.
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