When Gingrich met Yasser Arafat

GOP presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich stirred up plenty of controversy last week when he called Palestinians an "invented people" in an interview from the campaign trail.

"I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places,' Gingrich told the Jewish Channel last week.

All of which makes the above 1993 photo of Gingrich, then House Minority Whip, embracing the late Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, published by the Huffington Post's Sam Stein, perhaps noteworthy. Stein, who received the photo from a longtime political operative involved in Middle East issues, writes:

On Monday, a political operative who has been working on Palestine-Israel policy for the past 20 years sent The Huffington Post a picture of Gingrich, then the House minority whip, grasping the hand of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat immediately following the September 1993 Oslo peace accords.

The embrace, the source said, came after Arafat met with 20 to 25 House leaders over coffee. Jotting notes down in a yellow pad, Gingrich used the meeting to pitch Arafat on how best to actually construct a Palestinian state. "He said, 'Look, here is what I think you need -- an economic plan — and here is how it will work,' " the operative recalled. "It was a very positive contribution at the time and as they stood up, there were pictures." ....

But Stein goes on to note that Gingrich increasingly pitted himself in opposition to the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a key foreign policy priority of the Bill Clinton White House:

But the situation was fragile. By March 1994, Gingrich and others were urging President Clinton to veto a UN resolution that referred to Jerusalem as occupied territory. ... By 1998, Gingrich was accusing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright of behaving as "an agent for the Palestinians" in renewed peace negotiations. U.S. diplomats complained that the Speaker was causing serious headaches even as he met, once more, with Arafat.

Veteran White House Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, asked about Gingrich's recent comment on the Palestinians, suggested that it doesn't add much to the debate.

"I don't want to get into a partisan discussion. But I think it is fair to say that the Palestinian people exist because they have a very strong identity," Ross, who recently stepped down as top White House Middle East strategist, told a gathering at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Tuesday. Ross has served in five White Houses going back to the first Bush administration. "To say they don't exist is to dismiss reality."

"I generally think when discussing such issues, the discussion should take place at the level that reflects the realities of the region," Ross continued. "There is plenty of room for debate. But if one is trying to deal with the Middle East, you are not going to get very far with slogans."

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