Mitt Romney is back from abroad, and he’s probably never been more happy to be home in his life. His trip to Great Britain, Israel, and Poland was one embarrassing gaffe after another, and pretty much every headline he generated both here and abroad was negative. But I wonder whether his latest attempt at damage control – an op-ed published today at National Review regarding the Israeli/Palestinian issue – won’t cause him even more headaches. Because it sure seems to me as though that op-ed essentially blames Israel for the poor economic conditions in the Palestinian territories – not a view that’s likely to be popular with the right-wing crowd to which his Israel trip was designed to appeal.
Let’s unpack things a bit. One of the worst moments in Romney’s trip was when, at a fundraiser in Israel, Romney tried to explain the difference in per capita GDP between Israel and Palestine. It was bad enough that he got the numbers wildly wrong (per the AP, Romney’s estimate of about 2:1 was way off; the actual numbers are $31,000 vs. $1,500, or about 20:1). It got worse when he tried to explain why they differ.
Mitt Romney offended Palestinian leaders on Monday by suggesting that cultural differences explain why the Israelis are so much more economically successful than Palestinians, thrusting himself again into a volatile issue while on his high-profile overseas trip….
“Culture makes all the difference,” Mr. 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.”
He added, “As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. 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. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.”
Palestinian leaders reacted swiftly and angrily, calling Romney’s remarks “racist,” and interestingly saying that Romney’s remarks were worse than anything they hear from Israelis.
“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.
“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.”
Team Romney’s initial response to the whole kerfuffle was to pretend it never happened, as Romney hilariously told Fox News that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy,” even though, well, he did. So that didn’t work out too well.
Now, Romney has hit upon Plan C: admit that he was talking about culture after all, and try to explain what he actually meant. To that end, Romney has an op-ed up at National Review that attempts to do just that.
During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.
But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? … [O]ne feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom. The American economy is fueled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality…. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity. It is why our economy rose to rival those of the world’s leading powers — and has long since surpassed them all.
The linkage between freedom and economic development has a universal applicability. One only has to look at the contrast between East and West Germany, and between North and South Korea for the starkest demonstrations of the meaning of freedom and the absence of freedom.
And, he continues, the reason Israel does so well is that it loves freedom too.
Israel is also a telling example. Like the United States, the state of Israel has a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law. It is a democracy that has embraced liberty, both political and economic. This embrace has created conditions that have enabled innovators and entrepreneurs to make the desert bloom. In the face of improbable odds, Israel today is a world leader in fields ranging from medicine to information technology.
But hold on a second. Romney’s thesis here is that societies that enjoy “freedom” have a “culture” that is more conducive to economic growth. If Romney is right, it would seem to follow that the Palestinian society, which has very bad economic numbers (even worse than Romney apparently realized), is not a society that enjoys “freedom.”
But why is that, exactly? If you ask the Palestinians, they will likely give a one-word answer: Israel – and they’re not the only ones saying it. NYT:
Mr. Romney did not speak to the deleterious impact of deep Israeli trade restrictions on the Palestinian economy, an effect widely described by international organizations including the World Bank, which recently reported that “the government of Israel’s security restrictions continue to stymie investment.”…
The Palestinians have long complained that their economy is in a chokehold from Israeli security measures. The West Bank is subject to trade restrictions imposed by the Israelis, while Gaza was subject to a near-total Israeli blockade on people and goods after Hamas took control of its government five years ago. Mr. Romney mentioned neither during his speech on Monday.
In the West Bank, according to the C.I.A. World Factbook, “Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity” of the economy.
In Gaza, the C.I.A. says, Israeli-imposed border closings “have resulted in high unemployment, elevated poverty rates, and the near collapse of the private sector that had relied on export markets.” The agency added that “changes to Israeli restrictions on imports in 2010 resulted in a rebound in some economic activity, but regular exports from Gaza still are not permitted.”
So, according to the the World Bank and our CIA (as well as the Palestinians themselves), Israeli policies deprive Palestinians of the “freedom” to grow their economy. That, according to Romney’s op-ed, explains why their GDP is so low.
And here’s the wrap-up to Romney’s op-ed:
On this occasion, I am only strengthened in my conviction that the pursuit of happiness is not an American right alone. Israelis, Palestinians, Poles, Russians, Iranians, Americans, all human beings deserve to enjoy the blessings of a culture of freedom and opportunity.
By specifically arguing that Palestinians “deserve to enjoy the blessings of a culture of freedom and opportunity,” isn’t Romney directly criticizing Israeli policies over the Palestinian territories, since pretty much everyone seems to agree that those policies deprive the territories of a substantial degree of “freedom”? Isn’t he, in effect, saying that the bad economic conditions in the territories are Israel’s fault?
Is that really what he meant to say? What would Sheldon Adelson think?