Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign defended the candidate against criticism that his comments extolling Israeli culture were “racist.”
After a top aide to the Palestinian president on Monday blasted Romney to the Associated Press, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said that the candidate's comments “were grossly mischaracterized.” She also noted that Romney has often spoken about the wealth disparities of countries existing side by side.
At a donor event in Israel on Monday, Romney mused on why some countries were more successful than others, and at one point appeared to connect Israeli culture with economic progress and gross domestic product and made a comparison to less prosperous areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
“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.
“ ... If you can learn anything from the economic history of the world, it's this: Culture makes all the difference,” he said, adding that his thinking was influenced by the David Landes book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. “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.
Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rebuked Romney. “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,” he told AP.
“It seems to me this man (Romney) lacks information, knowledge, vision, and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat said, adding, “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”
The campaign contends that Romney's comparison of income disparities among neighboring countries was broader than just Israel and Palestine. In a transcript of his remarks, Romney indeed mentions the United States and Mexico, and Chile and Ecuador. He said that when he was in business as the head of Bain Capital, “I would travel to different countries to understand why there were such enormous disparities in the economic success of various countries.”
Romney invoked almost identical themes during the primary campaign. On a stop in Westerville, Ohio, in April, he recalled his earlier travels abroad and said, “One of the things that intrigued me was that you could have two countries right next door, and one would be dramatically outperforming the other.” He gave as examples Mexico and the U.S., North and South Korea, Chile and Ecuador, and Egypt and Israel.
He referenced the David Landes book on wealth and poverty then, too, and said, “If we learned anything from the history of economic development around the world, it's that culture makes all the difference. Now, he wasn't talking about clothing and food and dance and music. He's talking about fundamental beliefs of society,” which determine “economic vitality.”
A White House spokesman, asked about Romney's remarks in Israel, said that it was up to Romney to explain them.
“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,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “And it is clear that there are some people who have taken a look at those comments and are scratching their heads a little bit.”
Sophie Quinton contributed