Like everyone else, we're a bit tired of the gaffe-centric coverage of the presidential race. Every day the two campaigns and the press seem to gin up another small-potatoes controversy designed to send voters into a tizzy, generally without addressing the more serious issues facing the country or the economy.
But Mitt Romney's comments in Israel this week seem to rise above the run-of-the-mill misstatements that have been receiving too much attention in recent months. From the moment he landed there (after promising to abide by an unwritten campaign rule not to challenge American foreign policy while abroad), Romney's eagerness to pander to those voters he perceives to be pro-Israel overwhelmed his common sense.
On Monday, he declared that Jerusalem was Israel's capital and that he hoped to move the U.S. Embassy there eventually -- something the U.S. has for decades declined to do. One of his top aides, Dan Senor, made it clear that Romney would support Israel if it decided to "take action on its own" to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Romney later backed away from Senor's statement. Still it's comments like these, and Romney's remark earlier in the campaign that "we will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally Israel," that led former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk to note some months ago that Romney would, in effect "subcontract Middle East policy to Israel."
Romney was particularly tone deaf when he told donors Monday that "culture" was what explained the differences between Israeli and Palestinian societies. "As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is abut $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."
Even putting aside that he dramatically misrepresented the disparities — Israeli GDP per capita is actually close to $30,000 and the Palestinian figure is in the $2,000 range — Romney's comments infuriated Palestinians because they neglected to note the devastating effects of Israeli trade restrictions on the West Bank and of the near-total blockade imposed on Gaza after Hamas took power. Just last week, World Bank economist John Nasir wrote that "no state can be successful without a sustainable, private sector-led economy and this is simply not achievable under the heavy restrictions that the government of Israel imposes on movement and access to resources such as land, water and the electromagnetic spectrum required for modern telecommunications."
Israel has an unquestionable right to live within safe borders free from fears of terrorism or attack. The U.S. should work to guarantee that while also pressing for Palestinian self-determination. Mitt Romney's approach, however, has been unhelpful. Pandering is no substitute for statesmanship.