JERUSALEM — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”
Palestinians said that Romney was ignoring long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which are an enormous drag on commerce.
“All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education. He doesn’t know the region, he doesn’t know Israelis, he doesn’t know Palestinians, and to talk about the Palestinians as an inferior culture is really a racist statement,” Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview.
Romney said at a breakfast fundraiser that he had pondered the reasons for Israel’s huge economic advantage over that of 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, 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 of the event.
Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for a reason why two neighboring places could have such disparate prosperity.
“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “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.”
Romney’s campaign said afterward that the remarks had been misinterpreted. “This was not in any way an attempt to slight the Palestinians,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, told reporters during a later stop in Gdansk, Poland. “And everyone knows that.”
Romney’s campaign said that the candidate had made similar observations about cultural differences before. Staff members sent out a transcript of a speech the candidate gave in Chicago in March, in which he 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 United States, and the advantages American culture has 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 the United States and Mexico, and that the economic situations for prosperity are interesting to study and important,” Stevens said.
Reporters pressed him to explain what Romney meant by “culture,” but he declined to do so.
The White House and President Obama’s campaign were quick to criticize Romney for the remarks.
“One of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, in particular when you travel to such a sensitive part of the world, your comments are closely scrutinized for meaning, nuance and motivation,” deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Jennifer Psaki, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, added that the incident, along with comments Romney made last week in England questioning that country’s preparedness for the Olympics, shows that “he’s been fumbling the foreign policy football from country to country.”
Israel has imposed a blockade on its boundary with Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas took over there in 2007. In the West Bank, Israel continues to restrict Palestinian trade and movement.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said that the removal of such restrictions is necessary to allow Palestinian economic growth.
“He should know that the Palestinians will never reach their economic potential under Israeli occupation, and if he doesn’t know this fact, this man has a lot to learn,” Erekat said. “The harm he has done to American interests throughout the region is enormous.”
Earnest, the White House spokesman, took issue with another statement by Romney, who said in Israel that Jerusalem is its capital. Israel calls Jerusalem its capital, but because Israelis and Palestinians both claim that city, the United States and many other countries keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.
“My understanding is the policy of our nation has been a desire to move our embassy ultimately to the capital,” Romney told CNN, adding, “I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel.”
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.”
In better news for Romney, he gained the support Monday of an icon of the movement to topple communism in Europe: former Polish president Lech Walesa. Walesa, who led Poland’s pro-democracy Solidarity movement, met with the candidate and later offered his support in Gdansk.
“I wish you to be successful because this success is needed to the United States, of course, but to Europe and the rest of the world, too. Governor Romney, get your success, be successful,” Walesa said through an interpreter after their joint meeting.
Romney also met Monday with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and other top officials. During that meeting, “Romney expressed gratitude for Poland’s friendship and their people’s history of assisting the U.S. to defend our freedom,” the campaign said, adding that Romney “in particular cited Poland’s sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The group also discussed the European economic crisis, and efforts to build democracy in neighboring countries.
Romney laid a wreath at a memorial in Gdansk, honoring Polish soldiers at the spot where they battled invading German soldiers in the first engagement of World War II in Europe.
Rucker reported from Jerusalem and Gdansk, Poland. Greenberg reported from Jerusalem. David A. Fahrenthold, David Nakamura and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.