GOP hopefuls face off on ‘Palestinian’ comments

Republican candidates struggle to differentiate opinions on Israel from those of their opponents 3 weeks before primary season opens.

By REBECCA ANNA STOIL, JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDEN
December 13, 2011 05:39
Newt Gingrich [file]

Newt Gingrich 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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WASHINGTON – With three weeks remaining before the Republican primary season opens with the Iowa caucus, GOP hopefuls continued to hammer away at each other over the weekend.

Right-wing favorite Newt Gingrich’s recent comments describing the Palestinians as an “imagined” nation and President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies were hot topics at Saturday night’s debate, when candidates struggled to differentiate their opinions on Israel from those of their opponents.

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One candidate who did not suffer from that difficulty was Congressman Ron Paul, who said Gingrich’s comments were “just stirring up trouble.”

“I believe in a non-interventionist foreign policy. I don’t think we should get in the middle of these squabbles,” said Paul. “But to go out of our way and say that so-and-so is not a real people? Technically and historically, yes – you know, under the Ottoman Empire, the Palestinians didn’t have a state, but neither did Israel have a state then too.

“The people in those regions should be dealing with these problems; we shouldn’t be dealing with these things,” Paul, an outspoken anti-interventionist continued. Paul has advocated slashing all foreign aid budgets, including that of Israel.

“This idea that we can be the policemen of the world and settle all these disputes, I mean, soon we’ll have to quit because we’re flat out broke.”

Gingrich – in response to a quote by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who said “Mark my words: These statements of Gingrich will be the ammunition and weapons of the bin Ladens and the extremists for a long, long time” – reiterated that his argument was “historically true.”

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“Somebody oughta have the courage to tell the truth,” continued Gingrich. “These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say, ‘If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?’ We pay for those textbooks through our aid money. It’s fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’” Gingrich’s comments were greeted by ringing applause from the Iowa-based crowd.

Iowa will be a critical first test for Gingrich, who has come from behind to present a right-wing challenge to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination.

Romney did his best to challenge his main opponent while not saying anything to alienate pro-Israel supporters.

“I happen to agree with most of what the speaker said, except by going down and saying the Palestinians are an invented people. That I think was a mistake on the speaker’s part,” Romney rebutted.

Romney claimed that Obama had “negotiated for Israel by saying ‘lets go back to the ’67 borders,’” a paraphrasing of the administration’s call to begin negotiations at the pre-1967 borders.

“The United States of America should not jump ahead of [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and say something that makes it more difficult for him to do his job. My view is this: We stand with the Israeli people. We link arms with them. If we disagree with them, like this president has time and time again, we don’t do it in public like he’s done it, we do it in private,” Romney said.

“We stand with the Israeli people, stand with our friends, and make it very clear: We are going to tell the truth, but we’re not going to throw incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot when our friends the Israelis would probably say, ‘What in the world are you doing?’” he added.

The two front-runners engaged in sparring as to whether Gingrich’s comments were ultimately harmful to Israel – and also as to who was a more veteran friend of Netanyahu.

“I didn’t speak for the people of Israel. I spoke as a historian who’s looked at the world stage for a very long time. I’ve known Bibi [Netanyahu] since 1984. I feel quite confident an amazing number of Israelis found it nice to have an American tell the truth about the war they are in the middle of and the casualties they’re taking and the people who surround them who say, ‘You do not have the right to exist, and we want to destroy you,’” Gingrich said, in defense of his comments.

Romney responded that he has “also known Bibi Netanyahu for a long time. We worked together at Boston Consulting Group. And the last thing Bibi Netanyahu needs to have is not just a person who’s an historian, but somebody who is also running for president of the United States, stand up and say things that create extraordinary tumult in his neighborhood.”

“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,” Romney added.

Bachmann too emphasized her pro-Israel credentials, saying that she first visited Israel in 1974 as a kibbutz volunteer, and that she had pushed Palestinian President Salaam Fayyad on the issue of alleged anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian textbooks.

Santorum agreed with Romney, that the Israelis should be consulted before making any potentially incendiary comments, and added that “the Israelis have the right to determine what happens in their land. And all of Israel, including the – quote – West Bank, is Israeli land. And we need to work with them as to the solution that works best for our ally.”

Rather than assault his competitors, one-time front-runner Texas Governor Rick Perry said that he believed that Gingrich’s comments were a “minor issue that the media is blowing way out of proportion.”

Citing Obama’s performance record on Iran, Perry was greeted by applause when he said that “this president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said.”

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