Earlier today, on his third and last day in Israel—he’s now in Poland—the Mittster broke new ground in two ways. He came out as an economic historian, and he finally used the word “Palestinian.” But don’t worry yourselves, Dov Hikind and Howard Kohr: Romney didn’t have anything very nice to say.
Speaking at a breakfast fundraiser attended by the likes of the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the hedge-fund tycoon Paul Singer, and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, the G.O.P. candidate appeared to blame the failure of the occupied Palestinian territories to match Israel’s economic performance not on a lack of capital, the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, or the presence in the West Bank of Israeli settlers and military forces but on the differing cultures of the two peoples.
Citing the “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” and G.D.P. per capita between Israel and its troublesome occupied zones, Romney said he had been studying the work of David Landes, the octogenarian Harvard historian, whose 1999 tome “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” argued that the political and economic culture of Europe played a key role in its rapid development. “Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said at the fundraiser, which took place at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where he and his entourage were staying. “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.”
Since Romney didn’t specify what these “few other things were,” his audience, and Palestinian politicians, were left to dwell on his references to cultural factors. (There was apparently a mention of divine providence.) “All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education,” Saeb Erekat, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told the Washington Post. “He doesn’t know the region, he doesn’t know Israelis, he doesn’t know Palestinians, and to talk about the Palestinians as an inferior culture is really a racist statement…. He should know that the Palestinians will never reach their economic potential under Israeli occupation, and if he doesn’t know this fact, this man has a lot to learn.”
Claiming his remarks had been misrepresented, the Romney campaign released a partial transcript to reporters. According to the Post, he also brought up the work of Jared Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which stresses the role that climate, minerals, and other geographic factors play in economic development. “You look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here,” Romney said. “And likewise other nations that are next door to each other have very similar, in some cases, geographic elements.”
That is certainly true. But in applying Landes’s theory to occupied territories whose inhabitants have to pass through military checkpoints in getting from A to B, he was being insensitive—to say the least. Almost all outside observers have acknowledged that continued military occupation is one of the things stalling economic development in the Palestinian territories. In a lengthy report issued just last week, the World Bank said that “the removal of Israeli restrictions on access to markets and to natural resources continues to be a prerequisite for the expansion of the Palestinian private sector.” The Bank’s country director for the occupied territories, Mariam Shirman, described Israeli restrictions on economic activity as “the biggest impediment to investing” there.
To be sure, the Bank’s report also acknowledges the importance of legal structures and other things that might, broadly, be called cultural factors. It called on the Palestinian Authority to take more steps to promote growth, such as passing trade laws and developing their customs operations. But the overall tenor of the report was upbeat, and so was its assessment of the Palestinian people. It said:
Future growth of the Palestinian economy will depend upon how well it can integrate into the world economy and take advantage of its main riches: its well educated and entrepreneurial population and its location as a gateway between the Arab World and Europe. A Palestinian state could seek to emulate the outward-looking models of the East Asian countries, with trade as the main driver of future growth. High value-added services are particularly promising given the high levels of education and good infrastructure in West Bank and Gaza.
Based on the reports I’ve seen, Romney didn’t mention any of this in his remarks. He certainly didn’t describe the Palestinians as entrepreneurial. The suspicion lingers that his real intent, as in his sabre-rattling speech about Israel and Iran on Sunday (Amy Davidson wrote about that earlier), was to play to a domestic political audience. Having more or less assured his old pal Bibi and his new pal Sheldon that he wouldn’t mind if the Israelis took matters into their own hands and launched a military strike on Iran’s nuclear-research installations, what better way to whip up more support among conservative American Jews than by getting into a spat with the Palestinians?
In this way, and in others, the U.S. Presidential election is coming to resemble a local race in New York or Florida. What next? Will Romney fly back to Israel and visit a settlement? Will he persuade his wife to pull her horse Rafalca out of the Olympics dressage contest on the grounds that the International Olympic Committee refused to hold a minute of silence for the eleven Israeli athletes murdered by the Palestinian Black September group at the 1972 Munich Olympics? Will the Mittster refuse to attend the Games himself?
Oh no, he can’t do that: he’s already been there. But given how that leg of his trip turned out, he’s probably wishing the boycott idea had occurred to him this time last week.