“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire,” Gingrich said. “We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places.”
“For a variety of political reasons,” Gingrich continued, “we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it’s tragic.”
Gingrich’s comments, which were first reported by Politico, were met with surprise and dismay by a range of actors on the foreign policy stage, including Democratic and Republican former diplomats and Palestinian and Israeli advocates.
Gingrich did more than fan the flames of the already fraught
Arab-Israeli conflict; he challenged long-standing U.S. policy — initiated by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and continued by President Obama — to encourage the establishment of a separate Palestinian state.
“Besides being factually and historically wrong, this statement is unwise,” said Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine and a former adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “Rather than trying to delegitimize or undermine the narrative of either side, it would be much more productive to work towards a solution that guarantees the security and future of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
Elliott Abrams, who was a deputy national security adviser under Bush and is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “There was no Jordan or Syria or Iraq, either, so perhaps he would say they are all invented people as well and also have no right to statehood. Whatever was true then, Palestinian nationalism has grown since 1948, and whether we like it or not, it exists.”
Gingrich’s remarks also fed a long-standing narrative about the former House speaker — that he has a penchant for provocative utterances, exciting some while alienating others.
Gingrich’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has been highlighting that narrative this week, and Gingrich’s latest remarks gave Romney more fodder to continue doing so.
On a call with reporters late Friday, former ambassador Mary Kramer, a Romney supporter, said: “I’m not sure that kind of statement gets us any closer to accomplishing an agenda, and so that’s one of the things that I think makes me a little bit nervous about Speaker Gingrich — that he sometimes makes comments that are open to very broad interpretations.”
Iowa state Rep. Renee Schulte said Gingrich has a pattern of undisciplined remarks and contrasted him with Romney. The Republican said Romney’s “more disciplined approach is what we need in a president.”
Romney, meanwhile, refused to continue the stinging rebukes that his campaign first unleashed Thursday.
Romney demurred when asked in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday whether he agreed with some of his supporters, who in a Thursday offensive organized by his campaign characterized Gingrich as vain, erratic and untrustworthy. Romney limited his criticisms of Gingrich to comments he made on Medicare in the spring, when Gingrich called House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare overhaul “right-wing social engineering.”
“Speaker Gingrich and I have a very different view for instance with regards to Paul Ryan’s plan and the need to fundamentally transform Medicare 2.0, if you will,” Romney told reporters here. “We’ll talk about those differences and, I think in the final analysis, the American people will decide who can best lead our country in a very critical time.”
Romney declined to comment on a negative advertisement created by a political action committee run by his former aides that says Gingrich has “a lot of baggage.” Romney also did not say whether he agreed with what his supporters — including former White House chief of staff and New Hampshire governor John Sununu — said about Gingrich’s leadership. But he didn’t disavow their comments, either.
“I can’t write a script for governor Sununu or anybody else,” Romney said. “I can tell you that the people who’ve worked with Speaker Gingrich have their own views and they’ll express those views.”
Earlier, at a town hall meeting in Cedar Rapids, Romney framed the election as a choice of leadership. When a voter asked Romney why he thinks he is the best debater in the Republican field, Romney said: “I will be able to demonstrate a record of leadership.”
“When you think about our great presidents – Washington, Lincoln, for me, John Adams, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Eisenhower, JFK — what distinguishes them was the capacity to lead,” he said. “Their character, their vision, their ability to bring other people along, to convince others.”
Gingrich’s campaign pushed back against the onslaught with a press call of its own late Friday, in which supporters Greg Ganske, a former Iowa congressman, and Linda L. Upmeyer, the Iowa state House majority leader, not only defended Gingrich but also threw a few barbs Romney’s way. Ganske criticized Romney’s inability to control his supporters and suggested that Romney’s attacks are a sign that the campaign is “panicking.”
One group Gingrich pleased with his remarks about the Palestinian issue is evangelical Christians — a crucial part of the conservative electorate that will help decide the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3.
“The Iowa caucus goers and social conservatives here in Iowa, although we’re probably not sure about Speaker Gingrich’s choice of words, we’re probably at the same time just pleased to know how sincere he is about standing with Israel if he’s president of the United States,” conservative organizer Bob Vander Plaats said.
Rucker reported from Cedar Rapids.