JERUSALEM — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy had outpaced the economy of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”Palestinians said that Romney had ignored the long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which they say are an enormous drag on trade.
Romney’s campaign said afterward that the remark had been misinterpreted. “This was not in any way an attempt to slight the Palestinians,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, told reporters in a later stop in Gdansk, Poland. “And everyone knows that.”
Romney had said at a breakfast fundraiser that he had pondered the reasons for Israel’s huge economic advantage over the neighboring territories.“As you come here and you see the [Gross Domestic Product] 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, according to a pool report.
In fact, the difference is far more stark than that. According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita is actually $31,282. The same figure for the Palestinian areas is around $1,600.Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for an answer about why two neighboring places–the U.S. and Mexico, for instance, or Israel and the Palestinian areas–could have such disparate prosperity.“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from that book, by David Landes [my faather]. “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.”
As he has at home, Romney in Jerusalem cited a book titled, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” that suggests the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there.”And 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, before citing another book, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by former Harvard professor David Landes.
Romney’s campaign said that the candidate had made similar observations before. Staffers sent out a transcript of a speech that Romney gave in Chicago in March, in which he recounted the same research. In that case, Romney cited a slightly different Middle Eastern comparison: Israel and Egypt, a sovereign country that does not face the same trade restrictions as the Palestinian territories.
But there, Romney’s main point was not about Israel. It was about the U.S., and the advantages American culture had given this country’s economy.“It was a point that he has made and made today about the differences between such countries as Chile and Ecuador and United States and Mexico and that the economic situations for prosperity are interesting to study and important,” said Stevens, Romney’s strategist, on Monday. He criticized the Associated Press for publishing a story that described criticism by Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, about the remarks. “The Romney campaign was never called for comment before this story was written,” Stevens said. “And it’s extraordinarily unfortunate this sort of thing would happen in this situation.”
Reporters pressed Stevens to explain what Romney had meant by “culture,” but he did not.What culture means is attitudes towards hard work even among elites, the commitment to positive-sum game play (voluntary win-win relations), the treasuring of intellectual capital through encouraging curiosity and innovation and thinking out of the box, the principle of a rule of law that regulates trade, the acceptance of women into the workforce, the confidence that public criticism will not lead to violence… in a phrase a culture dedicated to making, not taking money.
On the other hand, Arab political culture, amply embodied by the Palestinian variety, promotes a cultue of contempt for hard work by leisured elites, widespread commitment to zero-sum games of dominance, an distrust of intellectual openness and external influences, a strong emphasis on rote learning and respecting those older and more powerful, hostility to women in the public sphere, ubiquitous protection rackets (e.g., Arafat the PA), a violent repression of public criticism… in a phrase, a culture dedicated to taking, not making.
Or, as Bernard Lewis put it, in some cultures, you make money to go into politics, while in others, you go into politics to make money.
In the same speech, Romney also said he recognized “hand of providence in selecting this place [Israel].”In terms of his argument about culture, one might argue that God chose the most forlorn deserted land, at the crossroads of great powers that would constantly trample the inhabitants under their imperial feet, and yet, with His bizarre and demanding laws, created a culture that could thrive nonetheless.
For Romney, the episode seemed another misstep in an overseas trip that has brought home the difficulty of being a candidate abroad.I like that “sensitive part of the world.” Of course the Palestinians will take issue with what Romney said, but maybe they should be thinking about whether or not it was true. In typical Palestinian style, they prefer to blame “the occupation” no matter how hollow the argument (on the contrary, having Israel as their foe has brought significant economic opportunities, not to mention huge sums of foreign aid their way). Granted the barriers and restrictions hinder the Palestinians, but they surely should take some responsibility for that; after all, the Israelis never would have built the separation barrier were it not for Palestinian terrorism.
So far, Romney has tried to follow an unwritten rule of American campaigning: don’t criticize the president on foreign soil.
But he has struggled with another unwritten rule–one that applies to travel more generally. It is also a bad idea to criticize foreigners on foreign soil.
On Monday, a White House spokesman told reporters that Romney had put himself in a delicate situation.
“One of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, in particular when you travel to such a sensitive part of world, your comments are closely scrutinized for meaning, nuance and motivation,” Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “It is clear there are some people who’ve taken a look at these comments and are scratching their heads. I would leave it to Governor Romney to further explain what he intended, what he meant.”
Saeb Erakat went swiflty on record complaining about the blow to Palestinian honor:
“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,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.Typical empty rhetoric of name-calling. “Racist” is precisely not the issue in an argument about “culture.” But since racist is a convenient name for smearing anyone who criticizes you, hey, use it no matter how inappropriate. As for the potential of the Palestinian economy, it was thrown into a tailspin by Arafat and by the pervasive opacity (i.e., undetectable corruption) that characterizes an economy in which the politicians and “security force” leaders live in villas while the vast majority live in hovels. Erakat is not only a symbol of what’s wrong with Palestinian culture, he’s a symbol of how they’d rather scape-goat than self-criticize. As Irshad Manji said, “Anti-Zionism is a weapon of mass distraction.”
“It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat added. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”Just because the Israelis are too tactful to rub it in your highly sensitive face, Saeb, everyone knows that from an economic point of view, Israeli culture is vastly more productive and creative. It’s like the judge in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, who’s shocked when someone mentions his wig. “You know I wear a wig?” he exclaims in surprise. “Everyone knows you wear a wig,” responds his interlocutor.
Indeed it’s not merely a matter of economics, it’s a matter of morality. When you ask an Israeli leftist not committed to moral equivalence to be a little less morally perfectionist, and compare Israel to the surrounding countries (its enemies), he or she will respond predictably: “I don’t want to be compared to our neighbors!” Implication: any such comparison would demean us. The secret contempt of the left for Arab culture.
Earnest also took issue with another statement by Romney, who said during his visit to Israel that Jerusalem is its capital. Israel itself says its capital is Jerusalem, but–since both Israelis and Palestinians claim that city–the U.S. and many other countries keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.That actually doesn’t follow. If Israel declares its capital as Jerusalem, then why not accept that? If the Israelis negotiate a peace with the Palestinians that includes a capital in Jerusalem, then recognize that. There’s no reason to withhold that recognition in anticipation. Only if one is deferring to an Arab insistance that the Israeli capital cannot be Jerusalem – which, alas, has always, and still is the case – can such a withholding of recognition make any sense. Erakat again states the Palestinian position:
Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital is “absolutely unacceptable.”This hardly sounds like the words of a man interested in sharing Jerusalem with Israel. Rather, he sounds like so many other figures in the PA who deny that the Jews have any relationship to Jerusalem at all.
Romney’s declarations are harmful to American interests in our region and they harm peace, security and stability,” Erekat told Agence-France Presse. ”Even if this statement is within the U.S. election campaign, it is unacceptable and we completely reject it,” Erekat continued. “Romney is rewarding occupation, settlement and extremism in the region with such declarations.”
Earnest said that Obama has a different position: “The view of this administration is the capital should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties. That’s the position held by the previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. If Mr. Romney disagrees with that, then he also disagrees with the position of presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.”Actually no. This president has taken the American attitude to Israel far beyond anything from previous presidents. As Noah Pollak points out:
Although in 2008 Obama called Jerusalem the “eternal and undivided capital” of Israel, he has backtracked—so thoroughly that State Department and White House spokesmen have been recently caught in painfully awkward exchanges [make that "pathetically awkward exchanges] with reporters trying to extract whether Obama recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.There can be no reason for Palestinians to object to a Jerusalem capital if they have the intention – as so many believe they do – of compromising and finding a win-win solution to their problems with Israel.
But then, it’s one of their cultural traits to refuse positive-sum games. As one Arab rioter in 1936-39 replied to the question posed by the Peel Commission about why he so hates the Jews when it is clear that their presence has enriched everyone economically:
You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor it is if I am only master of it.” (Weathered by Miracles, p. 207)