The Republican presidential debate on Saturday took a surprising turn when Newt Gingrich was criticized by most of his rivals for saying that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. He stood by the statement, resulting in condemnation from the Arab League. Overall, there were no major stumbles by the candidates, and most pundits agree that Gingrich preserved his position as front-runner.
“The fact is, the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story. Somebody ought to have the courage to go all the way back to the 1921 League of Nations mandate for a Jewish homeland, point out the context in which Israel came into existence, and ‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977,” Gingrich answered when a moderator asked him about the comment.
Mitt Romney said that Gingrich’s comment was “incendiary,” harmed Israel and that he should have consulted with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu before making it. He also accused Gingrich of speaking for Israel. Playing off of concerns over Gingrich’s electability, Romney said he isn’t a “bomb-thrower.” Rick Santorum said that Gingrich was correct, but the truth must be spoken with “prudence.” Ron Paul agreed that Gingrich is “technically” right, but said he was “stirring up trouble” overseas.
Michele Bachmann pivoted to tell a story about confronting Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad over the textbooks used in Palestinian schools. She said that he claimed that the hatred-filled textbooks had been discarded, so she showed him copies to prove him wrong. He then said that those were not in circulation and agreed to send her copies of the new textbooks. They never arrived. Rick Perry was the only one to defend Gingrich, saying that his comment is a “minor” issue blown up by the media.
“I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid,” Gingrich rebutted.
David Horowitz, Dr. Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer have come to Gingrich’s defense. Pipes writes that Gingrich is “absolutely correct: no Arabic-speaking Muslims identified themselves as ‘Palestinian’ until 1920 when, in rapid order this appellation and identity was adopted by the Muslim Arabs living in the British mandate of Palestine.”
Spencer pointed to a quote in 1977 from Zahir Muhsein, a member of the PLO executive committee: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity.”
There were other key moments in the debate. Mitt Romney struck Gingrich’s idea of mining for minerals on the moon, revising child labor laws so that young students can work in schools and eliminating the capital gains tax on the wealthy. He also said that Gingrich is a Washington D.C. insider. Gingrich drew the only boos of the night when he said that the only reason Romney isn’t a “career politician” is because he lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994. Romney joked that he’d be an NFL player if that worked out for him, too.
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