DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich on Saturday defended his statement that the Palestinians are an "invented" people, brushing aside criticism that he had unnecessarily made the Mideast peace process more difficult.
"Is what I said factually true? Yes," Gingrich said during a candidate debate in which he drew applause for asserting that it was time someone spoke the truth about the nature of Israel's struggle with the Palestinians.
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.
His remarks struck at the heart of Palestinian sensitivities about 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.
Gingrich expanded on his views when he told the audience at an afternoon veterans' forum that he supports a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that includes two separate states, then that evening rejected criticism from chief rival Mitt Romney that he had spoken for Israel when he shouldn't have.
At the veterans forum, Gingrich said the burden to show a willingness to reach a peace accord with the Israelis lies squarely with the Palestinians.
"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?" he said.
Gingrich sought to clarify his position later Saturday. In a statement, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said that "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."
Those latest comments appeared unlikely to calm the uproar among Palestinian officials. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad demanded that Gingrich "review history."
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.
Shortly after taking office in 2009, Netanyahu endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state, abandoning his Likud Party's traditional opposition to the idea. More moderate Israeli leaders have sought a peace deal with the Palestinians for the past two decades. Both Democratic and Republican administrations in the U.S. also endorse Palestinian statehood.