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Gingrich spokesman defends controversial Palestinian remark

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 2:01 PM EST, Sat December 10, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gingrich's spokesman said the candidate backs a negotiated peace
  • Gingrich called the Palestinians are an "invented" people
  • Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat says the comments are "racist"
  • A fellow Republican presidential contender has also criticized the comments

(CNN) -- Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich stands by his support for a Palestinian state, his spokesman said Saturday, despite his comment about an "invented Palestinian people" that has drawn fire from leaders in the West Bank and from a GOP rival.

Gingrich backs a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, said his spokesman, R.C. Hammond. But the Gingrich camp made no apology for the remark -- which some Palestinian leaders declared "racist" -- saying the former House speaker was simply referencing "decades of complex history."

Top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, who has negotiated in talks with Israel and the United States, said the remark shows "how really despicable things can get" in American politics.

"Such thinking should be an alarm and concern for the world," said Erakat, calling it "the most racist statement I've ever seen."

Gingrich made the comments in an interview that aired Friday with The Jewish Channel, a U.S. cable channel.

"I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state," Gingrich said in the interview. "Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, who are historically part of the Arab community."

He added, "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. I think it's tragic."

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His comments come days after Gingrich attended a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C., and as the current crop of GOP candidates compete for the Jewish vote.

They initially seemed off the path from United States foreign policy, which supports a two-state solution in the Middle East.

But Gingrich press secretary R.C. Hammond said Saturday that the candidate backs "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 emphasized that understanding "what is being proposed and negotiated" requires a grasp of "decades of complex history -- which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview. "

Still, Palestinians including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said Gingrich needs to reexamine the history books.

"The Palestinian people inhabited the land since the dawn of history, and intend to remain in it until the end times," Fayyad said Saturday at an event in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "People like Gingrich must consult history, as it seems that all what he knows about the region is the history of the Ottoman era."

Fayyad said "despite oppression, occupation, and assaults, the Palestinian people remain steadfast in their historic land, and will achieve their legitimate rights."

An executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hanan Ashrawi, said Gingrich has "lost touch with reality."

The statements show "ignorance and bigotry" and are "a cheap way to win (the) pro-Israel vote," Ashrawi told Voice of Palestine radio, in comments reported by the Palestinian Authority-controlled WAFA news agency.

Fatah Revolutionary Council member Dimitri Diliani said Gingrich's remarks reflect "the ignorant, provocative, and racist nature of Mr. Gingrich," according to WAFA.

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"The Palestinian people descended from the Canaanite tribe of the Jebusites that inhabited the ancient site of Jerusalem as early as 3200 B.C.E.," Diliani said. The "Gingrich remarks are ignorant of the basic historical facts of the Middle East."

Diliani also said Gingrich was simply seeking the pro-Israel vote, which he said is "a pathetic political scheme that jeopardizes peace and stability in the region."

While some Israelis share the view espoused by Gingrich, successive Israeli governments have negotiated over the creation of a two-state solution that includes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But Gingrich, in the interview, described the Middle East peace process as "delusional." He placed heavy blame on the Palestinian Authority and the role of Hamas, the ruling political party in Gaza, for the ongoing unrest, saying they both "represent an enormous desire to destroy Israel."

The Gingrich comments quickly drew criticism from a fellow Republican, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A spokesman for Romney, who is Gingrich's closest competitor, questioned the former House speaker's approach.

"I'm not sure that kind of statement gets us any closer to accomplishing an agenda," said Mary Kramer, former U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and Romney supporter. "And so that's one of the things that I think makes me a little bit nervous about Speaker Gingrich is that he sometimes makes comments that open to very broad interpretations."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Gingrich's "divisive and destructive" remarks were simply an effort to attract attention to himself.

"Gingrich is wrong to think his attempt to turn the Palestinians into a non-people with no claim to a state will appeal to his audience on the Jewish Channel," he said.

CNN's Kevin Flower, Ashley Killough, Shawna Shepherd and Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report.

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