Romney’s Clueless Remark on Palestine

Republican Mitt Romney pandered to a right-wing pro-Israeli audience by claiming Israel’s economic success, relative to the widespread poverty in Palestine, reflected superior cultural values and possibly divine preference, a statement that ignored the impact of the longtime occupation, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

I seldom feel much sympathy for those who claim to be offended by someone else’s politically inspired remark. Remarks, however, that not only are offensive but also reveal a profound misunderstanding of an important situation or a destructive approach toward dealing with that situation, or both, should not be allowed to pass unnoticed.

In an exclusive big-money fund-raiser in Jerusalem on Monday, Mitt Romney presented a discourseon why Israel is more prosperous than the Palestinian territories. He couched this subject as an intellectual debate between the scholars Jared Diamond, who explains differences in economic success in terms of geography and natural resources, and David Landes, who explains such differences in terms of culture.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking to a group of supporters. (Photo credit:

It’s culture, said Romney. “I recognize the power,” he said, “of at least culture and a few other things.” The only “other thing” he mentioned was “the hand of providence,” which preceded a further discourse about Israel as a “promised land” in which Israelis, relying on “themselves and the arm of God,” recognize “the purpose in this place.”

Conspicuously missing was any mention of the huge, elephant-in-the-room reason for the dismal state of the Palestinian economy: the systematic Israeli suppression of Palestinian economic activity.

That suppression has included in the Gaza Strip a suffocating blockade and in the West Bank (the explicit subject of Romney’s comparison) a less all-encompassing but still pervasive system of restricting transportation, separating people’s homes from their livelihoods, denying access to natural markets, requiring and denying permission for the simplest transactions, and countless additional ways of turning into a struggle the daily task of earning a living.

A recent World Bank report on the Palestinian economy stated, “The major constraints to private sector activity are the tight Israeli restrictions, and growth will not be sustainable until Palestinians have access to resources and are allowed to move freely.”

We should not be surprised anymore that Romney, in his effort to win whatever votes he thinks he can win by posing as the most unquestioning and uncompromising lover of Israel in the presidential race, should offer such an absurdly biased and truncated picture of economic realities on the ground.

On this trip he has spoken of his “passion” for Israel, thereby sticking a finger in the eye of George Washington, who in one of the sagest pieces of advice he offered in his farewell address warned that “a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils,” with some of the evils he enumerated being a remarkably prescient description of what we see today in U.S. relations and standing in the Middle East.

As for not only Palestinian economic activity but also Palestinian political and civil rights and national aspirations, Romney has effectively photoshopped them out of the pictures he has provided, including in a major address and interview before his current trip. And although he said he wasn’t going to try to make new foreign policy while on this trip, he did so by declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, even though the United States and nearly every other country in the world does not recognize it as such but instead considers it disputed territory.

Palestinian reaction to Romney’s latest comment was understandable. Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said, “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. It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people.”

But the significance of Romney’s discourse goes beyond its offensiveness, racist or not, and its implications for any chance that as president he could be respected as an honest broker in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It indicates a failure, deliberate or not, to recognize a significant moral, legal and humanitarian issue that festers almost within earshot of where he was speaking.

Romney’s campaign claimed that negative reaction to his comments involved taking them out of context; the campaign noted that he made comparisons not only between Israel and the West Bank but also between the United States and Mexico and between Chile and Ecuador. That he did.

It is interesting that the differences in economic status in those other comparisons are of a similar order of magnitude as the approximately 2:1 ratio that Romney asserted was the case with Israel and the West Bank. As some observers promptly noted, Romney was way off in his figures. The World Bank estimates that GDP per capita in the Palestinian territories is about $1,500, not the $10,000 that Romney gave, and the relative difference with Israel is not 2:1 but more than 10:1.

We are not dealing here with one more indiscretion that is counted as a candidate’s gaffe, like that silly business about the Olympics in Britain. It is instead the indication of a fundamentally wrong-headed and destructive approach to a long-running conflict that is very bad for the Palestinians, bad for any hope for peace in the Middle East, for that reason also bad for Israel, and for all of those reasons and the consequences that flow from them, bad for the United States.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Romney’s Clueless Remark on Palestine

  1. jesyl
    August 3, 2012 at 00:07

    true, john. and do not forget that Likud came from Irgun.

  2. jesyl
    August 3, 2012 at 00:05

    “I am for compulsory transfer; I do not see anything immoral in it.” in his diary in 1938
    “We must do everything to insure they ( the Palestinians) never do return….The old will die and the young will forget.”
    Ben Gurion (The First Israeli Prime Minister) 1948.

    This has been the grand plan before the palestinians knew what would happen. This is Zionism, a cancer on Judaism. This is Judaism:
    “The Torah forbids us to strive for the reunion or possession of the land by any but spiritual means.” – Rabbi S. R. Hirsch

  3. jesyl
    August 3, 2012 at 00:02

    another lame canard, the palestinians chose terror over peace. that old dog won’t hunt either. borat, you need to find a less educated crowd for your tired nonsense.

  4. jesyl
    August 2, 2012 at 23:59

    nothing at all to do with it. an emotional reaction to anything questioning Israel is unfortunately, common among Israelis. You can talk this way all you want “Borat”; it is true what you say though. the palestinians do have every right to defend their country. or are you talking about Shatila?

  5. John
    August 2, 2012 at 18:44

    What you are talking about is ancient history Borat, today we have international law before Israel was created or didn’t you know. The age of imperial power is dead now the world is smaller and we have the tools try to prevent its recurrence. Today we all need to recognize what was done to indigenous people in the past, was disgusting.
    In one breath you are saying that it’s all over and a people are denied their rights because they lost a war despite who started it, and in the other, neither side will get 100%. Which is it? Palestinians have tried several times for peace talks and can’t pin Israel down to any specifics.
    For God’s sake, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in peace before Zionism was invented.
    Excuse me but the British tried somewhat to keep the peace but the Stern Gang, The Palmach and Irgun, which certainly weren’t Palestinian, did a number on them. Letter bombs to political powers agaisnt Zionist ambitions, the killing of UN mediator Count Bernadotte and 90+ others at the King David Hotel and attacks on British soldiers.
    Exactly what state of Israel are Palestinians to recognize, the original partition line, the green line or what Israel is holding today which leaves the Palestinians nothing. It’s empty bigotted concepts like yours which deprive the area of peace. Get out and live a bit with people of other cultures, you will enjoy it.
    Perhaps you can explain these quotes Borat.
    Rabin, Chief of Staff in 1967:
    “Nasser didn’t want war. The two divisions he sent to Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. He knew it and we knew it.” Le Monde Feb. 28, 1968
    Levy Eskol, Israeli Prime Minister 1967:
    “The Egyptian layout in the Sinai and the general build up there testified to a militarily defensive Egyptian setup, south of Israel.” Yediot Ahronot, Oct. 16, 1967
    Menachem Begin PM in 1982 said:
    In June 1967 we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with orsewlves. We decided to attack him.” NYTimes Aug. 21, 1982.

    Not long before the 1967 war, Egypt had lost a bloody war in the Yemen and was in no state to attack Israel.

    From what books are you reading? Don’t bother, I can guess.

  6. Morton Kurzweil
    August 2, 2012 at 12:21

    The paranoia of tribalism, the fear of different cultures began with the walled cities of the very first civilizations.
    Nothing has changed except the tools of war to keep different societies from learning that they suffer the same fears and ignorance. When self-respect requires the disrespect of of others there is no way mutual respect can create mutual trust.
    The great civilizations, the ones that encouraged free trade in ideas and knowledge left their legacy in science and peace. All were destroyed by the petty fears of religious cults who needed a group authority to supply a personal identity to those who could not think for themselves.

  7. Aaron
    August 2, 2012 at 08:24

    “The Arab bloc has used the Palestinians as pawns, and could have provided all kinds of aid and support and easily have absorbed them.”

    – That is sheer racism. The reason why that has never happened is because Palestinians are a distinct people with the right of self-determination to have their own nation state. Why other neighbouring countries haven’t “absorbed” them is because they don’t consider Palestinians to be part of their own respective nation state, that is to say, Palestinians are not Jordanians nor are they Syrians nor are they Egyptians, etc. Palestinians are Palestinians and they have always had the right to have a state of their own, and that going as far back since the fall of the Ottomans.

    You know what you sound like ? It’s like you taking over Iceland, kicking the people out of their country, and saying to them “go live in Norway or Sweden or Denmark. What the hell do I care , you’re all Scandinavians, you’re all the same.”

  8. John
    August 1, 2012 at 23:31

    Borat, once again the first Palestinian suicide bombers appeared after American/Israeli (should I say Jew as technically there is no Israeli nationality, you are either documented as a Jew an Arab or something else in a passport) Baruch Goldstein entered a Hebron Mosque and killed more than a dozen Palestinian Muslims and wounded 170 more. After that episode the IDF shot and killed a further 25 enraged Muslims. Shockingly, Goldstein is a hero to many Zionists today.
    And Borat, who blew up the King David Hotel killing near 100 people and Count Bernadotte (1948), and who watched and allowed the Christian Phalange to kill 1500 Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila?
    How do you make peace when you violate international law and put settlers on occupied territory, deny Palestinians the right to good water, a proper diet, settlers threaten their children on their way to school, settlers threaten farms and burn olive groves, Palestinian crops rot at the border gates, Israel denies them access to natural gas in the Palestinian area? And why when Israel was created did the minority Jews, get the most land, and the best land? And that is why the Arabs didn’t accept the partitioning that Israel really benefitted from. A bias plan was forced on them from the start. How darn dark are your sun-glasses ?!
    Arabs have put forth several peace plans, but Israel will not deal with details and absolute timelines. Why, because it buys time to payoff other governments and bring in more Jews from Russia and else where, and put the boots to a Palestinian country. And has America paid dearly for that as Israel passed over secrets to the old USSR in exchange for the needed human cargo to put facts on the occupied land.

  9. ilse
    August 1, 2012 at 22:36

    Of course Pillar is critical or Israel. Who isn’t, besides the Israelis or the Mormons?
    “Palestinians have suffered economically. They’ve been given many chances to make peace and the door is still open.”
    Really? And give up their land?

    The door is still open? To where?

  10. ilse
    August 1, 2012 at 22:30

    What does that have to do with Romney’s stupidity?

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