Romney and Gingrich Saturday night.(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Republicans had their highest-profile (and most-viewed) presidential debate Saturday night on ABC, and during the whole time, in a sign of its centrality to the race, only one foreign-policy issue came up for an extended period of time: Israel. The candidates were asked about new frontrunner Newt Gingrich’s comment that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Gingrich defended it, saying it was “factually correct” and “historically true,” and then going on the offensive: accusing Palestinian leaders of stirring up hatred among their people and the Obama Administration of not having “the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’ ” Mitt Romney, who needs to pick a fight with Gingrich on everything he can in order to compete, responded, “I happen to agree with—with most of what the Speaker said, except by going down and saying the Palestinians are an invented people.”

As virtually every commentator has agreed, the Palestinians are an invented people. And, as virtually every commentator has agreed, bringing this up is irrelevant at best and almost certainly counterproductive and undiplomatic—unpresidential, really. The relatively recent vintage of the Palestinians’ self-invention (which you could argue didn’t occur until 1948 or even later, and you could also argue originated as early as the 19th century) isn’t really germane; its validity has been forged by a large group of actually existing people’s belief in it. (Elliot Abrams put it eloquently: “There was no Jordan or Syria or Iraq, either, so perhaps he would say they are all invented people as well and also have no right to statehood,” he said. “Whatever was true then, Palestinian nationalism has grown since 1948, and whether we like it or not, it exists.”)

Recognizing the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to the land (indeed, to all the land) is essential, I’ve argued, because you can then weigh that against the equal legitimacy of Israeli claims to all the land and conclude that the only just solution is splitting the land into two states. Gingrich is trafficking in a combination of long-discredited history and deliberate—to use a deliberately loaded word—delegitimization of the Palestinian cause, which in addition to being wrong and immoral is highly dangerous given how easily it could be applied to “invented” Israeli identity.

In fact, though (like Romney and Gingrich) I disagreed with Rep. Ron Paul’s call to re-evaluate aid to Israel and everyone else, I agreed with his diagnosis of the “invented” remark: “That’s just stirrin’ up trouble,” he observed. Already the Arab League condemned it, which is unusual for a statement in a presidential primary. “This statement is unwise,” Ghaith al-Omari, whose American Task Force on Palestine has received plaudits from pro-Israel groups, said. “Rather than trying to delegitimize or undermine the narrative of either side, it would be much more productive to work towards a solution that guarantees the security and future of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.”

Ah, but does that win you votes? Americans are about to learn what Israelis and Palestinians know all too well: that all leaders are constrained by their constituencies, and that if leaders’ constituencies reward a certain kind of talk, then more of that kind of talk will follow.

Newt, Palestinians, and the GOP Debate [JTA Capital J]
Gingrich Calls Palestinians An ‘Invented’ People [WP]
Newt, the Jews, and an ‘Invented’ People [New Yorker News Desk]
Earlier: Rick Perry’s Ascent Heralds Israel’s Rise As Issue
’67 Was Always the Only Option