What are we to make of Newt Gingrich’s assertion that the Palestinians are an “invented” people?

In an interview on cable TV’s The Jewish Channel the other day, the Republican presidential candidate, asked if he was a Zionist, responded: “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places.”

“For a variety of political reasons,” Gingrich continued, “we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it’s tragic.”

Not surprisingly, the remarks and the candidate were strongly criticized from the left and the right as racist and worse, and at best unhelpful to the peace process. (Wisely, so far at least, Israeli leaders have not commented, recognizing that any response is a no-win for them.)

But no one has refuted the historical accuracy of Gingrich’s comment convincingly. Daniel Pipes, whose right-wing politics don’t diminish his reputation as an historian, noted that Gingrich was “absolutely correct.” He said that “No Arabic-speaking Muslims identified themselves as ‘Palestinian’ until 1920, when, in rapid order, this appellation and identity was adopted by the Muslim Arabs living in the British mandate of Palestine.”

Critics would say all of that is beside the point; the reality is that Israelis and Palestinians in 2011 are vying for the same land and need to reach a peace agreement that gives them each a secure state. True, but the government in Jerusalem is on record in calling for a Palestinian state while even “moderate” Palestinian leaders have refused to recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist in the region.

Ironically, those Palestinian leaders who are furious over Gingrich’s statement continue to deny even the historical reality of a Jewish presence in the disputed land prior to 1948. Does that mean Jesus was an Irishman?

Somewhat overshadowed by the Gingrich controversy was Barbara Walters’ remarkable televised interview in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad, who asserted that the charge that the Syrian army is killing civilians — more than 5,000, according to the latest United Nations report — is a bald-faced lie. Walters was persistent in citing cases of torture and murder, including of children, to which Assad, calm and soft-spoken, said he is instituting reforms, has the support of his people and allows foreign journalists to report freely.

“We don’t kill our people,” he insisted. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person. For me, as president, I became president because of the public support. It’s impossible for anyone, in this state, to give order to kill people.”

World reaction? A shrug.

Lesson learned from the Gingrich and Assad episodes: facts are only facts when they are convenient; otherwise, ignore them. And our society gets high marks on that score.