With an eye toward the Jewish vote, Newt Gingrich disses Palestinians

In an interview on the Jewish Channel cable network, GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said Palestinians are an “invented” people. He also said he might grant clemency to Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

Cliff Owen/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addresses the 2012 Republican Presidential Candidates Forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, in Washington.

If Newt Gingrich wanted to stay newsworthy in the hours leading up to Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa, he sure succeeded.

In an interview on the Jewish Channel cable network, Gingrich said Palestinians are an “invented” people because they were part of the Ottoman Empire before the British mandate and Israel's creation.

“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state,” he said. “I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places.”

Palestinians and their supporters claim that many Palestinians were forced out of their traditional homeland when Israel was created in 1948. US policy has been that any long-term settlement in the Middle East would include a Palestinian homeland.

In recent days, the Republican presidential hopefuls have gone out of their way to express support for Israel. The one exception has been Ron Paul, who says he would zero out all US foreign aid, including Israel’s.

In his interview Friday, Gingrich seemed to take that another significant step in the direction of Israel.

In addition to his remarks on Palestinians, he also said he would consider granting clemency to Jonathan Jay Pollard, who has been serving a life prison term since 1987 for passing US secrets to Israel. Every president since then has refused Israeli entreaties to free him.

“If we can get to a point where I'm satisfied that there's no national security threat, and if he's in fact served within the range of people who've had a similar problem, then I'd be inclined to consider clemency,” Gingrich said.

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Gingrich’s comments about Palestine brought an immediate and outraged response.

"From the beginning, our people have been determined to stay on their land," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in comments carried by the Palestinian news agency Wafa. "This, certainly, is denying historical truths."

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said Gingrich had "lost touch with reality." She said his statements were "a cheap way to win the pro-Israel vote."

A spokesman for the militant Hamas rulers of the Palestinian Gaza Strip called Gingrich's statements "shameful and disgraceful."

Palestinians are culturally Arabs – they speak Arabic and their culture is broadly shared by other Arabs who live in the eastern Mediterranean. But for the most part, they identify themselves as Palestinians, just as Lebanese, Jordanians, and Syrians also identify themselves with a specific national identity.

Although they may not wade into the Israel-Palestine debate as Gingrich did, the other Republican candidates in the nominating race likely would not disagree with the former House Speaker’s remarks. As they prepared for Saturday night’s debate, none did.

By Saturday afternoon, Gingrich seemed to back-pedal or at least “clarify” his comments to the Jewish Channel cable network.

"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," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in a statement. "However, to understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history – which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview with Jewish TV."

In any case, it seemed to be one more example of the GOP front-runner saying something apparently designed to provoke or at least not fully thought-through.

In the past week, a growing list of Republican lawmakers who served with him in the House, GOP strategists, and conservative pundits have publicly said Gingrich’s personality and character make him unfit to win his party’s nomination or to serve as president.

“He's philosophically unanchored, an unstable element,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and former Reagan speechwriter wrote this week. “There are too many storms within him, and he seeks out external storms in order to equalize his own atmosphere. He's a trouble magnet, a starter of fights that need not be fought…. He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’”

The report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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