Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said he supports a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that includes two separate states, but he did not step back Saturday from his assertion that Palestinians are an "invented" people, an incendiary comment that infuriated one side in the Mideast peace process.
The burden to show a willingness to reach a peace accord with the Israelis lies squarely with the Palestinians, he said.
"When the president keeps talking about a peace process while Hamas keeps firing missiles into Israel, if we had a country next to us firing missiles, how eager would we be to sit down and negotiate?" Gingrich told a veterans forum in Des Moines, before participating in a nationally televised debate with six other GOP candidates vying for the presidential nomination.
Palestinian officials reacted furiously on Saturday to Gingrich's assertion, accusing the Republican presidential hopeful of incitement and staging a "cheap stunt" to court the Jewish vote.
The remarks struck at the heart of Palestinian sensitivities about the righteousness of their struggle for an independent state and put him at odds not only with the international community but with all but an extremist fringe in Israel. Mainstream Israelis, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, support the idea of an independent Palestine alongside Israel as part of a final peace agreement.
As Gingrich has risen to lead in national and early-voting-state polls, he has come under criticism from his party rivals for making inflammatory statements. The Palestinian comments intensified that scrutiny with less than four weeks until Iowa's precinct caucuses kick off the nominating contests on Jan. 3.
In footage released Friday, the former House speaker told the Jewish Channel, a U.S. cable TV network, that the Palestinians were an "invented people."
"Remember, there was no Palestine as a state — (it was) part of the Ottoman Empire. 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," Gingrich said according to a video excerpt posted online.
Gingrich sought to clarify his position later Saturday, saying in Iowa that he supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, including a Palestinian state.
In a statement, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said that "to understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing."
"Newt 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," Hammond said in the statement.
Those latest comments appeared unlikely to calm the uproar among Palestinian officials.
The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, demanded that Gingrich "review history."
"From the beginning, our people have been determined to stay on their land," Fayyad said in comments reported by the Palestinian news agency Wafa. "This, certainly, is denying historical truths."
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused Gingrich of incitement. "Mark my words ... these statements of Gingrich's will be the ammunitions and weapons of the bin Ladens and the extremists for a long, long time," Erekat told CNN.
The Palestinians have never had an independent state of their own. The region was ruled by the Ottomans for several centuries, and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the British took control of the area. It was known as the British Mandate for Palestine, and Muslims, Christians and Jews living there were all referred to as Palestinians.
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