Leading Republican White House contender Newt Gingrich has stood by remarks that Palestinians are an "invented" people, which have sparked outrage as he seemed to call into question long-held US policy on statehood.
"Is what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it historically true? Yes," Gingrich said during a thorny moment in the latest debate among the Republicans vying to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.
Gingrich's comments were the most hawkish to date from any Republican vying to take on President Barack Obama in November 2012's national election, and came as his rivals upped the bidding to gain key support from Jewish voters.
In a sign he could abandon the US position on a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, Gingrich said the Jewish people had the right to a state, but did not confirm if Palestinians should have the same privilege.
"Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire," Gingrich told The Jewish Channel in an interview released on Friday.
"We've had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community," he said.
"They had a chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons, we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it's tragic," the candidate said.
Republicans aiming for the presidency have declared an unshakable commitment to Israel, while criticizing Obama's policy toward the Jewish state.
But Gingrich's campaign was later forced to backtrack and a statement was issued that said the candidate did in fact favor the same two-state solution espoused by Obama and previous US presidents.
"Gingrich supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians," spokesman R.C. Hammond said, "which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state."
Outraged Palestinian officials called for the former US House speaker to apologize for his "vulgar, hurtful and ridiculous remarks."
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
His characterization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "constituted a totally unacceptable distortion of historical truth," Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said Saturday, stressing that in Israel "even the most extremist settlers don't dare to speak in such a ridiculous manner."
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum accused Gingrich of "cheap election propaganda."
"Gingrich's statements are violent, racist and deny the rights of the Palestinian people and our ancient history and are a clear incitement to violence against the Palestinians," he said in a statement.
And American Task Force on Palestine spokesman Hussein Ibish was quick to point out that "there was no Israel and no such thing as an 'Israeli people' before 1948," when the Jewish state was established.
But late Saturday in the latest Republican presidential debate, Gingrich kicked the hornet's nest again, saying: "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?" he said.
"We pay for those textbooks through our aid money. It's time for somebody to say 'enough lying about the Middle East.'"
Gingrich's latest remarks, including saying that "the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story," put his rivals -- and Americans in general -- on notice that he has no intention of shying away from controversy as he seeks his party's nomination.
While Jewish voters account for a very small portion of the electorate, they play an important role in pivotal states such as Florida and delegate-rich Pennsylvania that are key to the presidential nominating process.
Earlier in the week, Gingrich told a Republican Jewish forum that if he won the nomination he would ask John Bolton, former president George W. Bush's UN envoy, to be his secretary of state. Bolton is known for his virulent defense of Israel.
At that same forum, Gingrich's main rival for the nomination, Mitt Romney, said he would visit Washington's close ally on his first trip as president, and claimed that Obama had "chastened" Israel.
Republican White House hopeful Michele Bachmann, meanwhile, joined Gingrich in saying she would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to which both Israel and Palestinians lay claim.