Mitt Romney caused a stir in Jerusalem by suggesting Israel’s economic superiority over the Palestinian territories was a product of “culture” and “providence,” but the Republican candidate insists that he was misunderstood.
FOX News’s Carl Cameron grilled Romney on his remarks, which top Palestinian officials immediately denounced as “racist,” in an interview from Poland on Tuesday. The Obama campaign also accused Romney of needlessly inflaming tensions in the region.
Romney responded that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy,” while adding broadly that a nation’s “choices” affect their outcomes.
“That is an interesting topic that perhaps can deserve scholarly analysis but I actually didn’t address that,” Romney said. “I certainly don’t intend to address that during my campaign. Instead I will point out that the choices a society makes have a profound impact on the economy and the vitality of that society.”
Romney’s insistence that he was not addressing Palestinian culture seems at odds with his lengthy and detailed speech at a fundraiser in which he offered up a direct comparison between the per capita GDP of Israel and the Palestinian territories before launching into an explanation of why he thinks culture and perhaps a little divine help are so important to the stronger Israeli economy.
“I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries,” Romney said at the time. “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 grossly overstated the Palestinian per capita GDP (it’s about $1,500) while underestimating the per capita Israeli GDP (about $31,000), but the juxtaposition was clear as he segued into an explanation of his “perceptions about differences between countries” based on a Harvard history professor’s book.
“Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said. “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.” One of the additional factors he cited was “the hand of providence.”
Palestinian officials said Romney’s remarks were offensive not only because they implied the Israelis were inherently superior as a people, but because they ignored that the Palestinian territories have been under military occupation for decades and residents face major restrictions on their movement and ability to conduct trade.
Romney’s campaign noted he has made similar comparisons of neighboring countries’ economic strength in previous speeches, including Israel and Egypt. His book No Apology also mentions the disparity between the Israeli and Palestinian economies in a passage referencing the same academic research. In the same Jerusalem speech he mentioned “Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States,” as other examples where culture might help explain “such enormous disparities in the economic success of various countries.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.