Cain's Palestine Blunder

His campaign hit by allegations of sexual harassment, Republican presidential frontrunner Herman Cain makes another gaffe by questioning the existence of the Palestinians. Plus, Eleanor Clift on Cain's jovial sexual-harassment denial.

11.01.11 1:01 AM ET

To Palestinian ears, Republican contenders for the presidency can sound a lot like far-right Israeli politicians when discussing the Middle East. Most oppose concessions by Israel and advocate the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But now Herman Cain has managed to outdo even the most hawkish Israelis by referring to residents of the West Bank and Gaza as the “so-called Palestinian people.” The formulation appears to cast doubt on not just the Palestinians’ right to statehood but on their very existence as a nation.

Cain, the frontrunner among GOP candidates, invoked the phrase in an interview over the weekend with Israel Hayom, a mass-circulation Israeli tabloid owned by an American backer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Asked about President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, Cain referred to the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership: “I think that the so-called Palestinian people have this urge for unilateral recognition because they see this president as weak.”

He also said Obama’s failure to firmly support Netanyahu “emboldened Israel’s enemies.”

Cain’s remark raises further questions about Cain’s inexperience on foreign policy and his qualifications for the presidency. If elected president he will almost inevitably have to act as peacemaker between Israel and the Palestinians, as have all recent presidents. A businessman and former Washington lobbyist who has never been elected to any office, Cain has made a series of gaffes in debates and interviews on international issues, at one point last month dismissing “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” as a small and insignificant state.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and former peace negotiator, said she was outraged by Cain’s remark in the Israeli newspaper. “Even the Israelis he’s pandering to know that the Palestinian people exist, so to refer to Palestinians as if we’re a figment of someone’s imagination is more a reflection of his own ignorance,” she said in an interview. “But we’ve become accustomed to such absurd statements during election campaigns.”

Ashrawi said the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington only partially explains the unadulterated support for the Jewish state among Republican candidates. No less significant is the power of evangelical voters who see modern Israel as the realization of biblical scripture.

“The more extreme fundamentalist you are, the more you take the literalism of the Bible and translate it to extremist positions,” she said.

Republican candidates have all criticized Obama for not standing firmly enough with Israel and most have made trips to Israel in the past year that include meetings with top officials and stops at Jewish sites and even West Bank settlements.

Some analysts describe the standard tour as the “GOP hajj,” an ironic reference to the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy Saudi city of Mecca. The trips don’t necessarily raise the candidates’ support among American Jews, who vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. But evangelical Christian voters notice them and so do those Jewish contributors who do bankroll Republicans.

One of those contributors is the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a supporter of Netanyhahu and fierce opponent of Palestinian statehood. Adelson owns the newspaper Israel Hayom, where the Cain interview appeared. In a foreword to the interview, the newspaper’s reporter gushes that “if the Republican Party candidacy were to be decided on personal charm and charisma alone, Herman Cain would coast to victory.”

Cain spent several days in Israel in August, meeting with Israel’s deputy prime minister and other officials. Weeks later, he said in a GOP debate that as president, he would “make it clear to all the other people in the world that if you mess with Israel, you’re messing with the United States of America.”