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Updated: December 12, 2011 22:12 IST

Gingrich draws flak for remarks on Palestinians

Narayan Lakshman
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In this December 10, 2011 photo, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich takes part in the Republican debate.
AP
In this December 10, 2011 photo, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich takes part in the Republican debate.

Newt Gingrich is treading that fine line between being on fire and being in the line of fire. The former Speaker of the House, who is famous for causing a federal government shutdown owing to a personal rivalry with then-President Bill Clinton, has been the poll leader for several weeks now.

Yet last weekend he might have stepped into a maelstrom of controversy on the foreign policy front. Speaking to a Jewish channel earlier, he labelled the Palestinian bid for statehood as efforts of an “invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community”.

While Saturday's Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa, might have served as an opportunity to rescind this remark, the thrice-married Mr. Gingrich instead chose to stick to his guns, retorting, “These people [Palestinians] are terrorists, they teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say, if there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left? We pay for those textbooks through our aid money.”

“It's fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, enough lying about the Middle East [West Asia],” he went on to say. He also quoted Palestine's Ambassador to India who reportedly said there was no difference between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas parties, and “We both agree that Israel has no right to exist.”

Unsurprisingly his remarks provoked a strong reaction from West Asia, with the Arab League in particular “condemning” his statement calling it “racist and a cheap stunt to get votes”. Media reports also quoted Mohammed Sobeih, an Arab League official, describing Mr. Gingrich's comments as “irresponsible and dangerous”.

Media comments from the Gulf suggested took umbrage at Mr. Gingrich's frequent invocation of what some called a “slanted” history of West Asia. In Saturday's debate Mr. Gingrich said, “Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire... 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.”

Responding to this comment Gulf News said on its opinion pages, “If the Palestinian people are indeed ‘invented', then Gingrich should also accept the argument that the American people are, arguably, also ‘invented'.”

The newspaper went on to describe any such attempt by Mr. Gingrich to achieve political gains with such a statement as a “foolish idea,” adding that gaining the votes of the American Jewish community did not allow any candidate or politician to deny outright the rights of any given people.

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