Newt Gingrich declared in an interview that Palestinians are an "invented" people, a statement that drew outrage Saturday from top Palestinian officials.
Gingrich's campaign, while standing by the statement, afterward clarified that the former House speaker still supports the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The front-running Republican presidential candidate made the comments in an interview with The Jewish Channel. The interview marks some of the toughest language to date any candidate has used to describe the Middle East peace process. It also comes after Gingrich pledged at a forum earlier in the week that if elected, he would name John Bolton -- a hawkish, pro-Israel former U.N. ambassador who served in the George W. Bush administration -- as his secretary of state.
In the interview with The Jewish Channel, Gingrich likened himself to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he praised for his "tough-minded realism" about Israel's security.
He said the Jewish people have the right to a state, but stopped short of declaring the same for the Palestinians.
"Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community," Gingrich said. "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 1940's, and I think it's tragic."
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said afterward that the candidate was merely referring to the "decades-long history that has surrounded this issue," and has long supported the concept of Palestinian statehood.
"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 said in a statement. "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 Jewish TV. "
During the interview, Gingrich also said it's "delusional to call it a peace process," claiming that the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority and Hamas alike "represent an enormous desire to destroy Israel."
The Palestinian Authority generally is viewed in the West as a far more moderate influence in the region than Hamas. While the U.S. considers Hamas a terror group, it has tried to bring Palestinian Authority officials to the table with Israel.
Obama administration officials, notably Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, recently have put added pressure on the Israelis to help restart peace talks. President Obama, like his Republican predecessor, has pushed for a two-state solution -- though the Obama administration has fought efforts at the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state absent an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
Gingrich's comments come as the Republican presidential candidates compete to exhibit their pro-Israel credentials. While Gingrich's campaign later affirmed support for a Palestinian state, his comments on the Palestinian people drew fierce condemnation from abroad.
The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, demanded Gingrich "review history."
"From the beginning, our people have been determined to stay on their land," Fayyad said in comments carried by the Palestinian news agency Wafa. "This, certainly, is denying historical truths."
Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said Gingrich had "lost touch with reality."
Palestinians never had their own state -- they were ruled by the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, like most of the Arab world. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the aftermath of World War I, the British, then a global colonial power, took control of the area, then known as British Mandate Palestine.
During that time, Jews, Muslims and Christians living on the land were identified as "Palestinian."
But modern-day Palestinians bristle at the implication that they were generic Arabs. Palestinians are culturally Arabs -- they speak Arabic and their culture is broadly shared by other Arabs who live in the eastern Mediterranean. But they, for the most part, identify themselves as Palestinians, just as the Lebanese, Jordanians and Syrians also identify themselves with a specific national identity.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.