Why Israelis may not be thrilled by sweet nothings from Gingrich, GOP

As the GOP candidates, led by Newt Gingrich, work to outdo each other on supporting Israel, Israelis recognize the difference between campaigning and statecraft.

By , Correspondent

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich takes part in the Republican debate, Saturday, in Des Moines, Iowa. At the debate Gingrich said, "'Palestinian' did not become a common term until after 1977" -- a statement contradicted by, among other things, the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964.
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Israelis have grown accustomed to being the object of affection by US politicians and a stop on the campaigns of aspiring candidates over the past decade.

But the recent one-upmanship in the Republican primary on Israel has taken the debate into new territory. Newt Gingrich’s declaration that the Palestinians are an "invented" people potentially put him further to the right of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom Mitt Romney then name dropped in promising to stay on the same page with the government.

An embarrassment of diplomatic riches for Israel? Not necessarily.

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The ideological solidarity and lavish promises of support by the candidates are likely to be taken with a grain of salt. Israelis understand that when it comes time to set foreign policy it may be difficult to break with the past precedent, says Nachman Shai, a parliament member from the opposition Kadima Party.

"I am not in a position to judge, this is what they feel works best for them," he says. "This is an American election, not an Israeli election."

Republicans have promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, symbolically recognizing Israel's claim of the city as its capital. But the remark made by Mr. Gingrich is likely to resonate with many Israelis who still cast doubt on the Palestinians' national identity.  

The Palestinians have condemned Gingrich and likened his comment to former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's 1969 denial of the existence of the Palestinians as a nation. 

Gingrich doubled down on the idea in last night's GOP debate in Iowa, saying "'Palestinian' did not become a common term until after 1977" -- a statement complicated by, among other things, the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964. (Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the PLO.) 

Gingrich's staff said that he still supports a Palestinian state despite his recent remarks.

Indeed, if the US were perceived as more hardline than the Israeli government it would hurt its already-troubled role as a trusted mediator in any future peace process.

By questioning the foundation of Palestinian identity, Gingrich is aligning himself with the approach of Israel’s ideological Jewish settlers to the conflict, says Mitchell Barak, a public opinion expert and a former adviser to Mr. Netanyahu.

However, it is unlikely that an American administration would force Israel into an even harder-line stance against territorial concession, Mr. Barak says. "When the lines of debate are further to the right, it's good for the Israeli government."

What Gingrich's and other Republican comments do signal is that Israel will figure prominently as a bone of contention in the upcoming presidential election. Republicans have made a point of hitting the Obama administration for putting too much pressure on Netanyahu for concession.

That could be problematic for Israel by eroding existing bipartisan support in the US, explains Shmuel Rosner, the senior political editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

"It's not good for Israel to be a partisan issue," says Mr. Rosner. "When something becomes a partisan issue then you cannot get the kind of votes that Israel is getting in Congress, where 300 Congressmen vote for Israel. If Israel wants to remain a powerful, agreed-upon asset for the US, something that is not debated, it cannot be satisfied with a situation in which the mentioning of Israel is a partisan issue in every election cycle."

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