Mitt Romney’s 36-hour stop in Israel lasted long enough for him to add a new set of gaffes and missteps to his itinerary for this foreign trip designed to showcase his foreign policy chops. Yesterday, I outlined a series of misadventures for the Mitt which included a Dan Senor-initiated embrace of a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, which he soft-pedaled in a subsequent “clarification” to CBS. Romney also called Jerusalem the capital of Israel, a nuance that diverges from decades of U.S. policy, which does not recognize the disputed city as either Israel’s or Palestine’s capital (until a peace agreement when, presumably, it would become the recognized capital of two countries).
The Washington Post noted several sour notes in Romney’s public remarks which inflamed tensions with the Palestinians and showed Romney’s general ignorance of how the Occupation impacts both Israel and Palestine:
“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” Romney said.
The Post notes here that Romney completely botched these statisitics and that the Israeli GDP is actually $32,000, while Palestinian GDP is $3,000. While no one would make the mistake of calling Romney an economist, one would think as a corporate executive he would understand what innate differences between a proto-nation under modified siege and one fully independent would mean. Israel has observed economic policies that have long rendered Palestine dependent on it in numerous ways. Among them, is the lack of a deep water port in Gaza or airport which Israel has deliberately nixed. As the Times wrote:
Mr. Romney did not speak to the deleterious impact of deep Israeli trade restrictions on the Palestinian economy, an effect widely described by international organizations including the World Bank, which recently reported that “the government of Israel’s security restrictions continue to stymie investment.”
No matter how many profiles the NY Times runs on the Palestinian “economic miracle,” such as the one penned by Isabel Kershner yesterday, Israeli occupation stifles many aspects of Palestinian life, including this. Any economist worth his salt would concede that after a peace agreement that offers Palestine its full independence, its economy will grow by leaps and bounds.
The presidential candidate appeared to endorse the racist anti-Arab views of his chief donor, Sheldon Adelson, in claiming an innate cultural difference between Jews and Arabs that allows Israel to outshine its neighbors:
“[I]f you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference. And 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.”
“Culture” of course, has nothing to do with the fact that Israel is more economically developed than Palestine. Those differences are entirely political and economic in nature. Thankfully, John McCain noted that as well in subtly criticizing Romney’s remarks:
It’s government, “not cultures” that define the difference between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s according to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who appeared to differ with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney as he tried to defend him.
“I am sure that Gov. Romney was not talking about difference in cultures, or difference in anybody superior or inferior,” said McCain. “What I’m sure Gov. Romney was talking was that the Israeli economy has grown and prospered in a dramatic fashion. And unfortunately, the Palestinians have not had that same economic development.
Of course Romney intended his comments to reflect a cultural superiority of Israel over the Arabs, including the Palestinians. I just hope that McCain’s shot across the candidate’s bow will restrain any further racist notions from entering into his Israel-related pronouncements. To the Arizona senator’s credit, he’s more sensitive to the appearance of a Republican presidential candidate appearing to insult all of the Arab and Muslim Middle East. But of course with Adelson donating $100-million or more to the campaign, money outranks truth and reality every time.
The Post even notes that Israelis themselves disagree with Romney, which indicates the Republican’s weak grasp of the issues:
The assessment is one not widely shared within Israel, and suggested a lack of sustained study or nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
The White House too noted Romney’s insensitivity and divergence from accepted government policy:
“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,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said about the Monday remarks.
The comments have left some people “scratching their heads a little bit,” Earnest told reporters at the daily White House briefing…
Earnest said Romney’s position on Jerusalem, the eastern half of which Palestinians claim as the capital of a promised future state, runs counter to longstanding U.S. policy.
“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. “If Mr. Romney disagrees with that position, he’s also disagreeing with the position that was taken by presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.”
What this points out is that a Romney presidency would mark a sharp departure from decades of U.S. policy, because it would be largely inspired by ultra-nationalist donors like Adelson who don’t even believe a Palestinian people exist, let alone that Jerusalem should be shared with it. It’s important for Americans to note the likely radical changes to be expected with an Adelson takeover of Israel policy in the next administration.
The Palestinian reaction to these misguided remarks was swift and sharp:
Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who said: “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.”
AP noted how incendiary such attitudes can be both in a presidential campaign and in a region that is a tinder-box of ethnic tension:
…His decision to highlight cultural differences in a region where such differences have helped fuel violence for generations raises new questions about the former businessman’s diplomacy skills.”
The Romney campaign is exasperated with the coverage saying their candidate said nothing in his remarks he hasn’t said before. They even called the story “manufactured.” But the truth is that what upsets them is that only now has the press focussed on his racist attitudes. Before he had only expressed them in a book nobody read. Here he’s said them before some of the wealthiest Jews in the world while being covered by scores of international journalists. Not to mention the setting of the disputed city of Jerusalem. I think this is a case of a presidential campaign coasting and expecting what they’ve always done would get them through this particular set of events. What they didn’t realize is that they placed themselves under a microscope by taking this foreign policy junket to burnish Romney’s credentials. Of course you’re going to face extra scrutiny and what worked in the past might not work here.
Romney also made another embarrassing off-message gaffe in praising Israel’s nationalized health insurance plan (Kupat Holim) which provides low-cost, taxpayer subsidized health coverage to all citizens:
Romney noted that Israel spends just 8 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, while the United States spends 18 percent. “We have to find ways,” he said, “not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to [fund] and manage our health care costs.”
The answer, of course, to Mitt’s claim is for the U.S. to adopt a comparable system, which would dramatically lower the cost of health care to the same percentage of GDP as Israel’s (or less).
Jodi Rudoren in the NY Times typically downplayed or misapprehended the level of Romney’s gaffe-prone performance, not picking up on the general media criticism of the candidate, even by a reporter for the pro-Likud/pro-Romney Yisrael HaYom:
The visit to Jerusalem, in the middle of a seven-day overseas tour that began in London and continues on Monday in Poland…went smoother than the London stop…
Even her own colleagues appear to disagree, as this story, Romney Trip Raises Sparks at a 2nd Stop, points out.
I’m guessing that Rudoren’s inattentiveness to Hebrew language press coverage may have something to do with her lack of knowledge of Hebrew (though there are critical reports published in English language Israeli media). This caused her to miss some of the major elements of this story.