Palestinian spokespeople reacted angrily, saying Romney had ignored the impact of government policy, which for years has favored economic development in Jewish areas, and the continued Israeli occupation of parts of the West Bank, which has disrupted commerce and communications in Palestinian areas.
“Oh my god, this man needs a lot of education,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “What he said about the culture is racism. “The Israeli occupation” is “the reason” for the income disparity, Erekat added.
“Every extremist in the region is going to use what he’s said for ammunition for a long, long time,” Erekat added, referring both to the “culture” remark and Romney’s statement Sunday referring to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, language that departs from the long-standing U.S. position that the final status of the city is a matter for negotiations between the Israelis and Arabs. “This region needs knowledge and wisdom and people who build bridges, not add fuel to the fire of extremism,” he said.
As controversy over the remarks grew, Romney’s campaign aides insisted that his remarks had been “mischaracterized.” In his discussion of how cultural differences might account for economic disparities, they noted, he had not singled out the Palestinians, but had also cited other pairs of neighbors, including Mexico and the United States.
The exchange illustrates one of the downsides of the sort of overseas campaigning Romney has done for the last several days. A statement by a visiting presidential candidate, even an offhand remark, can easily become a source of offense. Romney already experienced that in London, with comments about British readiness to host the Olympics.
But no place is more touchy than this one, where the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has both sides intensely focused on international opinion and long-practiced in subjecting any visitor's words to scrutiny.
In Romney's case, Palestinians already were angry over his ardent embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's right wing. Romney made no effort while here to appear even-handed about the conflict, clearly siding with Israel against the Arabs.
In his remarks about economic development, he hit a sore spot for the Palestinians, who have long felt Israel was deliberately hampering their economic growth in the hope of encouraging Arabs to leave the Palestinian areas for other countries, as many have done.
Romney made his remarks at a breakfast with wealthy Republican donors -- his last event here before leaving for Poland.
He started by talking about economic development and discussed two books he had read on the topic, "Guns, Germs and Steel," by Jared Diamond, which argues for the importance of disparities in natural resources as a source of differences in the wealth of human societies, and "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" by David Landes, which argues for the importance of cultural differences.
"As you come here and you see the GDP 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," he said, understating the actual gap.
"Part of my interest when I used to be in the world of business as I would travel to different countries was to understand why there was such enormous disparities between the economic success of various countries," he said.
Romney noted that natural resources cannot explain the income disparities between Israel and the Arabs and mentioned other “countries that are near or next to each other” that have large economic gaps, citing “Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States."
Landes’ book, he said, makes the point that “if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: culture makes all the difference. 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.”
Among the “other things” responsible for Israel’s success, he said, was “the hand of providence in selecting this place.”
[For the Record, 9:17 a.m. PST July 30: This post has been updated with Erekat's reaction and the Romney campaign's response to the outcry over his comments.]