JERUSALEM — Mitt Romney's campaign stop in Israel left behind furious Palestinians charging that the Republican presidential candidate hasn't fully grasped the complexities of one of the world's most intractable conflicts.
Romney's sweeping embrace of Israeli government positions — especially on the Iranian nuclear program — came as no surprise. But Palestinian — and some Israeli — critics say he overshot by seeming to snub the Palestinians' president, dismiss their claims to Jerusalem, and suggest their culture is inferior to Israel's.
That came on Monday when Romney addressed the stark economic differences between Israel — a high-tech powerhouse with the per capita income of a developed nation — and the poorer Palestinians. Romney told an audience of affluent Jewish donors — including gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is pumping millions into a crusade to defeat President Barack Obama — that some economic historians have theorized that "culture makes all the difference."
"You notice a stark difference in economic vitality" between Israel and the Palestinians, Romney said, proceeding to badly flub the economic output numbers on both sides. "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," he said, citing an innovative business climate and the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances.
Palestinian leaders were outraged.
"The statement reflects a clear racist spirit," said Palestinian Labor Minister Ahmed Majdalani. "If Romney came here to rally Israeli and Jewish support in the U.S. election, he can do that without insulting the Palestinian people."
As criticism mounted as he traveled from Israel to Poland later Monday, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the candidate's comments were "grossly mischaracterized." The Republican's campaign contended Romney's comparison of countries that are close to each other and have wide income disparities — the U.S. and Mexico, Chile and Ecuador — showed his comments were broader than just the comparison between Israel and Palestine. While speaking to U.S. audiences, Romney often highlights culture as a key to economic success and emphasizes the power of the American entrepreneurial spirit compared to the values of other countries.
Palestinians noted that Romney's comments did not address the stifling effect of Israel's occupation. Although Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, it continues to restrict Palestinian trade and movement there and in the West Bank. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said repeatedly the Palestinian economy can only grow in a sustainable way of Israel lifts those restrictions.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, said Romney's comments are hurting U.S. efforts to restore Washington's standing in the Muslim and Arab world.
"There are 57 Muslim and Arab countries here, and while U.S. diplomats are exerting every possible effort to explain their position, here comes Romney, with no knowledge of the region, its history and culture, and gives such statements, which will only serve as ammunition in the hands of extremists in this region," Erekat said.
In recent years, the U.S. has remained constant in its support for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican sat in the White House. But two decades of on-again, off-again U.S.-led peace efforts have been bedeviled by violence and have not nudged the sides towards a final peace deal that would settle borders and other issues.
"We need the U.S. as an honest broker for peace, between us and the Palestinians," said Alon Liel, a former senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "It's not enough being a friend. If we don't have the honest broker, we don't have peace. There are no signs that Romney understands it."
Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, came to Romney's defense, saying he was impressed by "his intellect, by his breadth of knowledge and his vision."
"It is unfortunate that the Palestinians find every reason and opportunity to discomfit or to criticize or to attack Israel or anyone who pays respect to Israel and Jewish culture or anyone who supports Israel," Ayalon said.
It's become the norm for U.S. presidential hopefuls to make a stop in Israel in hopes of winning support from Jewish voters in the U.S., and Palestinian officials say Romney's embrace of Israel's positions was expected, especially with polls showing a close race. Romney apparently hoped to exploit the sense that Obama's relations with Israelis and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rocky.
Israeli officials received Romney warmly as he agreed with Israel that Jerusalem is Israel's capital, disregarding the Palestinians' claim to the war-won eastern sector, annexed by Israel in 1967 in a move that is not internationally recognized. Romney also suggested he was open to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, something the Israelis have long sought but the U.S. has refused to do because it would imply recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.
Romney also spoke categorically about protecting Israel from Iran's nuclear ambitions, which both Israel and the U.S. think are directed at producing bombs, despite Tehran's denial. He also cancelled a planned meeting with Israel's opposition Labor Party leader, sparking concerns among Israeli commentators that Netanyahu and his visitor appeared so politically allied that it might endanger Israel's standing in Washington if Obama were reelected.
During his 36 hours in Israel, Romney did not make the 30-minute trip to the West Bank or seek a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, though he did meet briefly with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Jerusalem. Romney left Israel on Monday.
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Romney's remarks also managed to offend some Jews, who thought the talk about Jewish prosperity played into an anti-Semitic stereotype. "When I heard the association between Jews and money, it really caused me some uncomfortable feeling, I must say, because that was what was said by anti-Semites all over the years," said Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Inter-Disciplinary Center outside Tel Aviv.
Laub reported from the West Bank. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed reporting.