WASHINGTON Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich thrust himself into controversy on Friday by declaring that the Palestinians are an "invented" people who want to destroy Israel.
The former speaker of the House of Representatives predictably sided with Israel in its decades-old dispute with the Palestinians but took it a step further in an interview with the Jewish Channel.
The cable station posted online its interview with Gingrich, who has risen to the top of Republican polls with voting to start early next year to pick a nominee to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.
Gingrich differed with official U.S. policy that respects the Palestinians as a people deserving of their own state based on negotiations with Israel.
"Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire" until the early 20th century, Gingrich said.
"I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. And 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 it's tragic," he said.
Most historians mark the start of Palestinian Arab nationalist sentiment in 1834, when Arab residents of the Palestinian region revolted against Ottoman rule.
Israel, founded amid the 1948 Arab-Israel war, took shape along the lines of a 1947 U.N. plan for ethnic partition of the then-British ruled territory of Palestine which Arabs rejected.
The two sides remain deeply divided over what the future boundaries should be for two states under any eventual peace accord, as well as on the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees who remain displaced.
Gingrich along with other Republican candidates are seeking to attract Jewish support by vowing to bolster U.S. ties with Israel if elected.
Gingrich said the Hamas militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians' governing body, the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, represent "an enormous desire to destroy Israel."
The U.S. government has sought to encourage the Palestinian Authority to negotiate with Israel but has labeled Hamas as a terrorist group.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has long forsworn violence against Israel as a means to secure an independent state, pinning his hopes first on negotiations and more recently on a unilateral bid for statehood via the United Nations.
Gingrich said he would be willing to consider granting clemency to Jonathan Jay Pollard, who has been serving a life prison term since 1987 for passing U.S. secrets to Israel. Successive U.S. presidents have refused Israeli entreaties to free him.
"If we can get to a point where I'm satisfied that there's no national security threat, and if he's in fact served within the range of people who've had a similar problem, then I'd be inclined to consider clemency," Gingrich said.
Gingrich sharply criticized the Obama administration's approach to Middle East diplomacy, saying it is "so out of touch with reality that it would be like taking your child to the zoo and explaining that a lion was a bunny rabbit."
(Editing by Xavier Briand and Jackie Frank)