Republican roils Middle Eastern waters
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Newt Gingrich has a well-documented reputation for bomb throwing,
but his latest assertions about Palestinians threaten to blow at least two
decades of United States Middle East diplomacy to pieces.
In a pre-recorded interview with the Jewish Channel made public on Friday, the
former speaker of the House of Representatives and the latest front-runner in
the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, called the Palestinians an
"invented ... people".
"We've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and are
historically part of the Arab community, and they had a chance to go many
places," he told the cable television interviewer. "And, for a variety of
political reasons, we have
sustained this war against Israel since the 1940s."
Pressed on those words during a presidential debate on Saturday, Gingrich went
even further, insisting that his remarks were both "factually correct" and
"Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth," he said. "These people
are terrorists; they teach terrorism in their schools ... It's fundamentally
the time for somebody to have the guts to say 'Enough lying about the Middle
While his statements may have come as music to the ears of Jewish settlers in
the Palestinian territories, they appeared to cause genuine alarm elsewhere.
The strongly pro-US prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad,
said they "constituted a totally unacceptable distortion of historical truth",
adding that "even the most extremist settlers don't dare to speak in such a
And the Arab League, which the administration of President Barack Obama has
been cultivating assiduously in the growing confrontation with Iran, denounced
Gingrich's remarks as "irresponsible and dangerous".
Even some prominent neo-conservatives, whose foreign policy views generally
track with those of Israel's Likud Party, found Gingrich's assertions about
Palestinian identity a bit much.
"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," Elliott
Abrams, former president George W Bush's top Mideast adviser, told the
Washington Post Saturday before the debate.
"Whatever was true then, Palestinian nationalism has grown since 1948, and
whether we like it or not, it exists."
As for Gingrich's Republicans rivals, however, their reaction has been somewhat
muted, to say the least.
Aside from Texas Representative Ron Paul, who was excluded from a forum
sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) last week precisely because
his views about Israel are considered too skeptical, only former Massachusetts
governor Mitt Romney, Gingrich's main rival for the nomination, dissented.
He insisted, however, that he would defer to the judgement of Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a position that was quickly ratified by two other
hopefuls, Representative Michele Bachmann and former Senator Rick Santorum.
"I happen to agree with most of what the speaker said," Romney noted in
apparent alignment with Gingrich about alleged Palestinian terrorism, "except
by going and saying that the Palestinians are an invented people. That I think
was a mistake on the speaker's part."
"And therefore, before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone
to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, 'Would it help if I said this? What would
you like me to do? Let's work together, because we're partners.' I'm not a bomb
thrower, rhetorically or literally," he added.
There is little question, however, that Gingrich would consult with Netanyahu.
One of the former speaker's biggest financial backers over the past few years
has been Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino mogul who has also backed
Adelson has financed a free daily newspaper in Israel, "Israel HaYom", often
called "Bibiton" for its fidelity to the prime minister.
Gingrich, who skyrocketed to the top of the Republican candidate pack after the
withdrawal of the pizza firm Godfather's former chief executive officer Herman
Cain, now leads Romney by healthy two-digit margins in several of the states
that hold early primary elections, including Iowa and South Carolina, according
to the latest polls.
The prospect that he may capture the nomination has spooked many of the party's
elders, particularly those who served with and under him during the 1990s when
he engineered the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and then was forced
to step down after suffering major losses in the 1998 mid-term elections.
A former professor with a doctorate in history - his dissertation was about
education practices in the former Belgian Congo - Gingrich is known for his
bombastic and somewhat frenetic temperament.
David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist, described that
temperament last week as "revolutionary ... intensity, energy, disorganization
and a tendency to see everything as a cataclysmic clash requiring a radical
Over the past week, a succession of former and current senior Republican
leaders, including popular New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former New
Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, have loudly
criticized his candidacy in apparent hopes of reversing his surge in the polls.
"Here's the thing, and there's no polite way to put this," noted Chris Nelson
in his influential Nelson Report newsletter.
"What Christie, [Senator John] McCain et al don't want to state in public," he
wrote, "is that Gingrich's colleagues KNOW him, and almost without exception,
long ago came to the conclusion that he is quite literally insane."
"Not 'crazy, ha ha' but genuinely unhinged, and as such, utterly unacceptable
as a nominee, much less as leader of the free world, with [former US ambassador
to the United Nations] John Bolton as his sec state, and his finger on the
Gingrich promised the audience at the RJC forum that, if he won the presidency,
he would ask Bolton - an extreme right-winger who, like Gingrich, has been
based at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) - to serve as
his secretary of state.
During that forum, Romney and another Republican contender Rick Perry promised,
if elected, to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in
compliance with long-standing congressional legislation.
Until now, in refusing to do so, presidents have cited international law and
fears that such a move would provoke renewed instability and violence in the
Gingrich, however, did them one better, pledging to issue an "executive order
the day I'm inaugurated".
On Iran's nuclear program - an issue on which all of the Republican candidates
except Paul have stressed their hawkishness - Gingrich said he would rely on US
"covert capability", including continuous sabotage of Iranian oil refineries
and assassination of scientists, as part of a strategy to achieve "regime
replacement" in Tehran.
If Israel decided to attack Iran, he indicated the US would support them so
long as it did not resort to using nuclear weapons. "I would rather plan a
joint operation conventionally than push the Israelis to a point where they go
nuclear," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer the following day.
As the New York Times noted in a front-page article on Monday, Gingrich has
long expressed concern that Iran could explode a nuclear weapon above the
United States, setting off an electro-magnetic pulse that could cripple the
country's electricity infrastructure as a result of which, in his words, "we
would basically lose our civilization in a matter of seconds."