Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has declared his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but declined to use a pre-debate speech in Iowa to step back from earlier controversial remarks in which he described Palestinians as an "invented people".
The burden to show a willingness to reach a peace accord with the Israelis lies squarely with the Palestinians, Gingrich told a veterans forum in a theatre near Drake University in Des Moines on Saturday.
"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?
"We have a challenge in the Middle East, and this is one where we’re going to have a national debate that’s going to be very difficult and that people are going to find at times very frustrating.
"We can’t have an honest conversation about what’s going on in the Middle East, we can’t even discuss what the roots of the problem are," he told about 100 veterans, a few hours before participating in a nationally televised debate with six other Republican candidates vying for the presidential nomination.
Gingrich prompted angry condemnation from Palestinian leaders and US politicians after he said during an interview on a Jewish US cable television network that Palestinians are an "invented" people who could have chosen to live elsewhere after the creation of Israel in 1948.
He also equated Hamas, the armed Islamic resistance movement in the Gaza Strip, with Fatah, the internationally recognised Palestinian government in the West Bank, saying both "share an enormous desire to destroy Israel".
"I believe that the Jewish people have the right to a state … Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire," Gingrich said, according to footage of the interview released on Friday.
"I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community … and they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it’s tragic."
RC Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, sought to soften the remarks in a statement on Saturday, saying that "to understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history, which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing".
‘Just Gasoline and a Match’
Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race.
Along with other Republican candidates, he is fighting to attract influential Jewish support by vowing to bolster Washington’s ties with Israel if elected. But his remarks were widely rejected.
"The vast majority of American Jews [including this one] and the Israeli government itself are committed to a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side as neighbors and in peace,” said Democratic Senator Carl Levin in a statement. "Gingrich offered no solutions – just a can of gasoline and a match.”
Most historians mark 1834 as the dawn of Palestinian Arab nationalist sentiment, when Arab residents of the region revolted against Ottoman rule.
Just as Israeli identity was forged after a long nationalist struggle staged by Zionist Jews for a state of their own, the identity of Palestinian Arabs was also hewn by their own decades-long struggle over the same land.
Israel took shape along the lines of a UN plan for the ethnic partition of the British ruled territory of Palestine, but Arabs rejected the partition.
More than 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their lands by Zionist armed groups in 1948, in an episode Palestinians refer to as the Nakba or "catastrophe".
"There is no intelligent person today who argues about the existence of the Palestinian people,” Israeli historian Tom Segev told the AP news agency.
"Nations are created gradually. I don’t think the Palestinians are less of a nation than the Americans."
But Danny Danon, a Likud MP and deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament, said Gingrich "understands very well the reality we live in in the Middle East" and thathis stance is shared by "most of the Jewish people, not just in Israel".
Obama ‘Favours the Terrorists’
In his interview with the Jewish Channel, Gingrich also sharply criticised US President Barack Obama’s approach to Middle East diplomacy, saying that it was "so out of touch with reality that it would be like taking your child to the zoo and explaining that a lion was a bunny rabbit."
He said Obama’s effort to treat the Palestinians the same as the Israelis is actually "favouring the terrorists".
"If I’m even-handed between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists that are firing missiles every day, that’s not even-handed, that’s favouring the terrorists," he said.
He also said the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, share an "enormous desire to destroy Israel".
The Palestinian Authority, which rules the occupied West Bank, formally recognises Israel’s right to exist.
President Mahmoud Abbas has long forsworn violence against Israel as a means to secure an independent state, pinning his hopes first on negotiations and more recently on a unilateral bid for statehood via the UN.
Gingrich declared his world view was "pretty close" to that of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and vowed to take "a much more tougher-minded, and much more honest approach to the Middle East" if elected.
(Agencies via Al Jazeera)