Richard Cohen provides an excellent and balanced discussion of the importance of culture, in today’s Washington Post: “For Israelis and Palestinians: a difference beyond question”
Mitt Romney is clearly an intelligent guy with an impressive business track record. This makes it all the more disturbing that while visiting Israel Romney felt called upon to blame the difference in living standards between Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza (WBG) on cultural differences. I will unpack the ignorance of this claim further on, but first, why did he do it?
We know that Romney is weak on foreign policy issues and regrettably influenced in this area by neocon advisors who tend to favor the one Israeli state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem favored by the Israeli right wing over American interests and policies. Since George W Bush American policy has explicitly supported a two state solution. Those unfamiliar with the history of these issues are urged to read my earlier blogs on the topic: “The View from the West Bank – a history of the conflict”, “Jerusalem in august 2006″, “Leaving Israel August 11 2006″. “The Invented Palestinians”.
The United States has a strong commitment to the military defense of Israel and it was appropriate for Romney to restate that commitment while visiting Israel. But it is neither in our national interest nor Israel’s to support or endorse every measure the current Israeli government might think up or take in relation to its neighbors. Israel’s well being depends on making a just peace with its neighbors and returning the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians that live there. This is well known and accepted by most Israeli’s but not, apparently, by Romney’s neocon advisors. Given Romney’s lack of understanding in these issue, wisdom would have called for him to remain silent on the issue. So why did he say it, then deny it and than say it again?
First, what did he actually say? According to the Associated Press (“Romney outrages Palestinians by saying Jewish culture helps make Israel more successful”) on July 30 Romney told a breakfast meeting with wealthy donors at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem: “As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, 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…. 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.”
Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official told the AP: “What is this man doing here? Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn’t this racism?”
The next day in an interview with Fox News’ Carl Cameran in Poland, Romney denied that he has spoken of the role of culture in the differences in income between Israel and Palestine. (Cameron interview of Romney) It did not take long for Romney to correct this misstatement in a National Review article under his name, “Culture does matter-Mitt Romney”: “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.”
So why did he say it? Sadly Tom Friedman probably has it right in his July 31 column in the New York Times: “Why not in Vegas” “Since the whole trip was not about learning anything but about how to satisfy the political whims of the right-wing, super pro-Bibi Netanyahu, American Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, why didn’t they just do the whole thing in Las Vegas? I mean, it was all about money anyway — how much Romney would abase himself by saying whatever the Israeli right wanted to hear and how big a jackpot of donations Adelson would shower on the Romney campaign in return.”
So statesmanship, diplomacy, American national interest had nothing to do with it. So maybe Romney actually understood how stupid his comments were. But let me walk us through the facts.
First, Palestinians and non Arab Israelis are first cousins racially. So this can’t be what Romney had in mind. Religiously, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three great monotheistic religions, with Islam the most recent in that evolutionary chain, all share cultures of individual responsibility and work ethic. So it is hard to see Romney’s point in this area. My point is not that culture is unimportant, though calling in “everything” is clearly wrong. My point is that anyone who knows anything about Israel and the WBG, knows that it does not apply there. A very informative and well worth reading criticism of Romney’s statement is in Fareed Zakaria’s Aug 2, Washington Post op-ed, “Capitalism not culture drives economies”.
If Romney had driven the short, but time consuming, distance from Jerusalem to the temporary Palestinian capital in Ramallah, he would have seen some of the physical evidence of how Israel is choking the economies of the occupied, land locked West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip (high concrete walls cutting through Palestinian farms, check points blocking the movement of people and commerce, illegal Israeli settlement on Palestinian lands, etc.). I would have thought that a man of Romney’s intelligence would chose to remain silent on these deeply explosive issues until he could consult a more balanced group of foreign policy experts. Sadly he seems to have put politics above national interest.