In Israel, Romney wows crowds but puzzles with grasp of Palestinian relationship

Touring U.S. allies this week in his first foreign trip as the likely Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney often appeared to be visiting just another set of swing states, pleasing audiences with parochial promises, puzzling others with off-the-cuff remarks, and raising loads and loads of money.

Only the trip was designed to be more than that for a campaign playing catch-up — a chance to show that a former governor light on foreign policy qualifications could represent the United States abroad. On that, the verdict is still out.

Romney’s international-foray-as-campaign-tour was epitomized by his centerpiece stay in Israel, where on Monday he told an audience of American donors that the sluggish Palestinian economy is plagued more by “cultural” differences than by the strictures of the decades-old Israeli occupation.

“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 told the gathering at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, where he raised more than $1 million.

The assessment is one not widely shared within Israel, and suggested a lack of sustained study or nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

He went on to compare Israel’s economy with that of the Palestinian territories, which he seemed to suggest make up a country of their own. He said that Israel’s annual per-capita gross domestic product is $21,000 — it is actually $32,282 — and that the Palestinian figure is $10,000 — more than five times as large as it actually is.

“You notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality,” Romney noted. “And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.”

Despite the missteps from London to Jerusalem, political analysts say the legacy of Romney’s trip will have little effect on a U.S. election that will be decided by economic conditions at home.

“This really is an election about the economy,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a nonprofit organization that promotes a two-state solution to the conflict.

Ibish contrasted this election to the one four years ago, when, at a time of two wars, foreign policy was a chief concern for voters.

But, he said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “this issue, in particular, has fallen off the map of U.S. foreign policy attention.” He predicted that Romney probably will not suffer politically for the position he has taken this week.

“It might be effective politics, especially with fundraising,” Ibish said. “But to those who know the issue, his comments do not reflect the actual challenges facing the Palestinian economy.”

For months, Romney has called President Obama a weak leader who is more inclined to appease antagonists than assert American power on behalf of U.S. interests and allies.

So his six-day visit to some of the nations most friendly to the United States offered Romney an opportunity to detail his differences with a president who, excluding Israel, is still highly popular in many nations .

Romney has distinguished himself from Obama, but perhaps in ways he did not immediately intend.

From a tactical point of view, Romney has faltered at times in trying to prove that he has the policy expertise, personal skills and cultural intelligence to represent the country abroad.

At the same time, Romney has tried to follow an unwritten rule of American campaigning: Don’t criticize the president while 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 while on foreign soil.

He started by insulting the conservative leader of Britain, the United States’ closest ally, by questioning the nation’s readiness for the Olympics. Prime Minister David Cameron shot back that Salt Lake City, where Romney organized the Winter Olympics in 2002, is in “the middle of nowhere.”

Romney’s advisers have argued that Obama — who ended the Iraq war, ordered the operation that killed Osama bin Laden and emphasized alliances at a time of austerity at home — is vulnerable in the area of foreign policy. Recent polling disagrees.

But the former governor offered few specifics on how he would change U.S. foreign policy. And on such key issues as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and ending the Afghan war, his policies appear nearly identical to the president’s.

Obama, though, is more vulnerable on his management of the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. In seeking balance between the two sides during his time in office, especially early on, Obama has instead seen his support fall with each of them.

Romney, by contrast, made no attempt in Jerusalem to portray himself as an impartial mediator.

In a speech delivered against a backdrop of the Old City, Romney declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, even though the United States does not recognize it as such. Israel annexed East Jerusalem — including the Old City, the site of Judaism’s holiest place — after the 1967 Middle East War.

But the annexation is not recognized internationally. The U.S. Embassy is in Tel Aviv, as are the diplomatic missions of most other countries.

Dan Senor, one of Romney’s senior foreign policy advisers, suggested to reporters that the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendents would have to renounce their historic claim to return to land inside Israel under any final peace agreement.

The Palestinian “right of return”and the status of Jerusalem are the conflict’s most vexing issues. Obama and his predecessors have said they should be part of the “final status” negotiations between the two parties, not pre-judged by outside parties.

But it was Romney’s views on the Palestinian economy and culture that exposed the biggest gulf between Obama’s position and his regarding the conflict — and, perhaps, his overall sense of foreign affairs.

In his 2010 book, “No Apology,” Romney referred in a chapter titled “The Culture of Citizenship” to the Palestinians as Israel’s “neighbors.”

“How could Israelis have created a highly developed, technology-based economy while their Palestinian neighbors had not yet even begun to move to an industrial economy?” he wrote. He wrote that he drew such conclusions from his travels.

Israel controls all cargo crossings into the Palestinian territories — only a pedestrian crossing at Rafah between Gaza and Egypt is under Palestinian control — and the Israeli shekel is the Palestinian currency.

Much of the West Bank economy relies on international aid and a large public sector. Israeli military checkpoints make transport difficult, some West Bank roads are reserved for Israeli travelers, and Israeli military closures of the territories can hang up trade for days.

The economic lifeblood of Gaza, once a manufacturing hub for Israeli furniture companies, is now a thriving smuggling trade in cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, weapons and even cars through the tunnels beneath its southern border with the Sinai.

“If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world, it’s this: Culture makes all the difference,” Romney told donors, who raised $25,000 to $50,000 to attend. “Culture makes all the difference. 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.”

David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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