JERUSALEM – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy had outpaced the economy of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”

Palestinians said that Romney had ignored the long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which they say are an enormous drag on trade.

Romney’s campaign said afterward that the remark had been misinterpreted. “This was not in any way an attempt to slight the Palestinians,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, told reporters in a later stop in Gdansk, Poland. “And everyone knows that.”

Romney had said at a breakfast fundraiser that he had pondered the reasons for Israel’s huge economic advantage over 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 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,” Romney said, according to a pool report.

In fact, the difference is far more stark than that. According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita is actually $31,282. The same figure for the Palestinian areas is around $1,600.

Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for an answer about why two neighboring places — the U.S. and Mexico, for instance, or Israel and the Palestinian areas — could have such disparate prosperity.

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from that 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 also said he recognized the “hand of Providence in selecting this place (Israel).”

For Romney, the episode seemed another misstep in an overseas trip that has underscored the difficulty of being a candidate abroad.

So far, Romney has tried to follow an unwritten rule of American campaigning: Don’t criticize the president on foreign soil.

But he has struggled with another unwritten rule — one that applies to travel more generally. It is also a bad idea to criticize foreigners on foreign soil.

Romney’s first troubles came in London, the first stop on his tour. He was lambasted by politicians and the British press after he pointed out well-known flaws in the preparations for London’s Olympic games.

At the breakfast fundraiser in Israel, Romney also noted that Israel spends just 8 percent of its GDP on health care, while the United States spends 18 percent. “We have to find ways,” he said, “not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to (fund) and manage our health care costs.”

He did not note that Israel’s health care system contains some features that Republicans have attacked when they were proposed in the U.S. Israel has universal health care, with a mandatory requirement to obtain health insurance.

Romney’s campaign said that the candidate had made similar observations about cultural differences before. Staffers sent out a transcript of a speech that Romney gave in Chicago in March, in which he recounted the same research. In that case, Romney 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 in that reference, Romney’s main point was not about Israel. It was about the U.S., and the advantages American culture had 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 United States and Mexico and that the economic situations for prosperity are interesting to study and important,” said Stevens, Romney’s strategist, on Monday.

He criticized the Associated Press for publishing a story that described criticism by Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, about the remarks. “The Romney campaign was never called for comment before this story was written,” Stevens said. “And it’s extraordinarily unfortunate this sort of thing would happen in this situation.”

A spokesman for the Associated Press said Monday that the wire service was standing by the story that Romney’s campaign had criticized.

“We reported what Romney said. We later reported what the reaction was,” said spokesman Paul Colford. “We’re standing by the story. I mean, there’s no backing away from that.”

Reporters pressed Stevens to explain what Romney had meant by “culture,” but he did not.

On Monday, a White House spokesman told reporters that Romney had put himself in a delicate situation.

“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. “It is clear there are some people who’ve taken a look at these comments and are scratching their heads. I would leave it to Gov. Romney to further explain what he intended, what he meant.”

In his comments on “culture,” Romney did not mention that Israel controls crossings to both Palestinian areas. 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.

Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said that the removal of such restrictions is necessary to allow Palestinian economic growth.

“All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education,” said Erekat, Abbas’s top aide and the chief Palestinian negotiator, in an interview with The Washington Post. “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.”

 

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