NEW YORK (JTA) — Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich stood by his assertion that the Palestinians are an "invented people," drawing criticism from other GOP candidates.
"Is what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it historically true? Yes," Gingrich said during a GOP debate Saturday night in Iowa. "We are in a situation where every day rockets are fired into Israel while the United States — the current administration — tries to pressure the Israelis into a peace process."
"Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth,” he continued. "These people are terrorists, they teach terrorism in their schools."
Gingrich added that "it’s fundamentally the time for somebody to have the guts to say enough lying about the Middle East."
He first made the "invented people" comment in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Channel.
In response to Gingrich’s comments at the debate, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said, "That’s just stirring up trouble."
Many prominent Jewish Republicans view Paul as an isolationist whose opposition to tough anti-Iran actions and foreign aid, including for Israel, would be bad for the Jewish state. But Gingrich also drew criticism from GOP candidates with records of strong support for Israel.
Mitt Romney, who stands first or second in most polls, said he agreed with Gingrich’s comments about Palestinian terrorism, but said the former House speaker went too far in publicly questioning Palestinian peoplehood.
"I happen to agree with most of what the speaker said," Romney responded. "Except by going and saying that the Palestinians are an invented people. That I think was a mistake on the speaker’s part."
Romney warned against throwing “incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot” — and that doing so could make things harder for Israel.
Another candidate with strong pro-Israel credentials, Rick Santorum, followed Romney’s comments with similar criticism of Gingrich.
In recent days, Gingrich’s campaign issued a statement stressing that despite his comments on Palestinian peoplehood, he still favors the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. The statement, released by spokesman R.C. Hammond, declares 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."
Hammond added, "However, to understand what is being proposed and negotiated, you have to understand decades of complex history, which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview with The Jewish Channel."
Gingrich’s comment has been criticized in even stronger terms by an assortment of Palestinian spokesmen and liberal commentators.