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U.S.: New Republican Front-runner Roils Mideast Waters

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is known for being incendiary but has recently taken his speech to a new level. Credit: Gage Skidmore/ CC by 2.0

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is known for being incendiary but has recently taken his speech to a new level. Credit: Gage Skidmore/ CC by 2.0

WASHINGTON, Dec 12 2011 (IPS) - Newt Gingrich has a well-documented reputation for bomb throwing, but his latest assertions about Palestinians threaten to blow at least two decades of U.S. Middle East diplomacy to pieces.

In a pre-recorded interview with the Jewish Channel made public 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 Saturday, Gingrich went even further, insisting that his remarks were both “factually correct” and “historically true”.

“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 East.'”

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-U.S. 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 ridiculous manner”.

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 sceptical, 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 last few years has been Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino mogul who has also backed Netanyahu.

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 former Godfather’s CEO 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 practises 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 response”.

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 criticised 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, (Sen. 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 U.S. ambassador to the U.N.) John Bolton as his SecState, and his finger on the nuclear trigger.”

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 U.S. 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 region.

Gingrich, however, did them one better, pledging to issue an “executive order the day I’m inaugurated”.

On Iran’s nuclear programme – an issue on which all of the Republican candidates except Paul have stressed their hawkishness – Gingrich said he would rely on U.S. “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 U.S. 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 Monday, Gingrich has long expressed concern that Iran could explode a nuclear weapon above the United States, setting off an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that could cripple the country’s electricity infrastructure as a result of which, in his words, “we would basically lose our civilisation in a matter of seconds.”

 
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