Mitt Romney sets off culture skirmish over Israel economy

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 30, 2012 

— Mitt Romney suggested Monday that Israelis enjoy a better standard of living than neighboring Palestinians do because they have a superior culture and enjoy the “hand of providence.” The remarks set off an outcry from Palestinians, one of whom accused Romney of racism.

The brouhaha was the latest turmoil to rock the Republican presidential candidate’s foreign trek, including a controversy in London on the eve of the Olympics and another in Jerusalem.

In the latest, Romney told about 40 donors at a fundraising event in Jerusalem why he thought Israel’s economy is much stronger than that in territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Noting that Israel enjoys the same natural resources – or lack of them – as its neighbors, he said there must be another reason that Israel stood out.

“If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world, it’s this: Culture makes all the difference,” he said, citing the work of historian David Landes, the author of the book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.”

“As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney added. “One, I recognize the hand of providence in selecting this place.”

He told how Jews left Egypt, trusting in God to help them survive in the promised land.

“This is a people that has long recognized the purpose in this place and in their lives that is greater than themselves and their own particular interests, but a purpose of accomplishment and caring and building and serving. There’s also something very unusual about the people of this place."

Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, criticized Romney’s remarks, according to the Associated Press.

"It is a racist statement, and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation," Erekat told the AP. “It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people. . . . He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority."

At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the remarks seemed to leave people “scratching their heads a little bit,” adding that “one of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, particularly when you’re traveling to such a sensitive part of the world, is that your comments are very closely scrutinized, for meaning, for nuance, for motivation.”

Earnest refused to say what Obama thinks is a cause of the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians, saying only that it’s the president’s view that “certainly economic issues are among the wide range of issues” that need to be settled through negotiations between the parties.

Romney, who’s to conclude his six-day trip Tuesday with a speech in Warsaw, Poland, has been dogged by controversy from the start. In London, he questioned Great Britain’s preparation for the Summer Olympic Games and drew a rebuke from Prime Minister David Cameron. In Jerusalem, he said Sunday in a widely noted speech that the city was the capital of Israel, a sensitive point in peace negotiations.

The United States does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital, and the U.S. Embassy is in Tel Aviv. Palestinians say East Jerusalem will be the capital of their state.

Earnest said Romney’s stance put him at odds with former Democratic and Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan. “It’s the view of this administration that the capital is something that should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties,” Earnest said.

However, when Obama first ran for president as a senator, he said much the same as Romney. “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” Obama said in June 2008.

The General Delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the United States condemned Romney’s remarks on Jerusalem, saying they were “not only in violation of international law and international resolutions, but they also run against a long-standing U.S. policy of not changing the status of Jerusalem until it is settled by both Palestinians and Israelis. By taking this stance, Governor Romney is jeopardizing U.S. national interests and is threatening regional stability.”

Clark reported from Washington. Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid, @lesleyclark

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