Mitt Romney, wrapping up a six-day international tour overshadowed by criticism of his remarks on the Olympics and the Middle East, will try to change the subject today with a foreign-policy speech in Warsaw and meetings with Polish leaders.
The Republican presidential candidate will discuss Poland’s economic growth and stress the strategic importance of the U.S.- Polish alliance, according to a campaign aide who asked not to be identified.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and private- equity executive, has sought to establish his foreign-policy credentials only to see that effort derailed by criticism. Yesterday, he drew a rebuke from Palestinian officials angry with his comments during a Jerusalem fundraising breakfast comparing the “vitality” of Israel’s economy to the financial straits of the West Bank, with one calling him a “racist.”
That firestorm followed one at the start of his trip, when Romney’s questioning of the U.K.’s readiness to manage the Olympic Games riled his hosts in London.
Palestinians were already irked after a July 29 Romney speech declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital, a status that most countries don’t recognize and the U.S., which maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv, treats as a matter for negotiations.
At yesterday’s fundraiser at the King David hotel overlooking the security wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, Romney drew the attention of some of his top donors, among them casino executive Sheldon Adelson, to the gap in gross domestic product between the Israeli and Palestinian economies.
“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and you 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 dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality,” Romney said. Noting the geographic similarities and challenges facing the two communities, Romney credited Israel’s economic success to its culture.
“Culture makes all the difference,” he said.
Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, told the Associated Press that Romney’s remarks were “racist.”
“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,” Erekat said. “It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people.”
The Republican candidate erred on the economic statistics, underestimating the gap between the two countries. Israel’s GDP per capita is about $30,000, according to the Bank of Israel, and the West Bank’s is about $2,000, according to the World Bank.
The World Bank said in a March report that the Palestinian economy has been held back by Israeli restrictions on movement of commercial goods and declining aid from foreign donors.
Palestinian leaders decried Romney’s remarks yesterday as both inaccurate and offensive.
“Romney has to remember he’s running for office in the U.S. and not in Israel,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said in a telephone interview. “His statement is totally unacceptable and far from reality.”
Romney aides pushed back on the report, saying the media took the candidate’s comments out of context.
“It’s a story that never should have been written,” campaign strategist Stuart Stevens told reporters. “This was not in any way an attempt to slight the Palestinians and everyone knows that.”
In an effort to end the controversy, campaign aides pointed to times when Romney had made similar comments, questioning the economic differences between neighboring nations, including the U.S. and Mexico.
“I wondered how such vast differences could exist between countries that were literally next door to each other,” he wrote in his book, “No Apology.” “As I traveled to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America and to both halves of Europe that had previously been divided by the Iron Curtain, I discovered that the prosperity gap is really a canyon.”
Romney also sought to defuse controversy fueled by an aide’s comments that he would support an Israeli strike to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
In his Jerusalem speech, Romney said it’s “right” for America to stand with the Jewish state and employ “any and all measures” to stop Iran’s nuclear arms program.
At a briefing for reporters before the July 29 speech, foreign policy adviser Dan Senor told reporters, “If Israel has to take action on its own in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision.”
Romney tried to temper that language in a CBS interview several hours later, saying he wasn’t distancing himself from current U.S. policy. “What we have said and with which I concur is that we should use every diplomatic and political vehicle that’s available to us to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear capability,” he said.
Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, told reporters traveling on Air Force One to New York yesterday that Romney has been “fumbling the foreign policy football from country to country.”
Romney turned his focus to his arrival in Poland -- the final stop of his tour -- and the leg where he received the warmest reception.
“Poland’s steady rise is an example of the prosperity that comes from free-market reforms and an embrace of entrepreneurialism,” Romney aide Lanhee Chen said in an e- mailed statement.
The country’s GDP grew at 4.3 percent in 2011, the fastest in the European Union.
Hundreds of cheering Poles greeted Romney yesterday when he arrived at the old town hall in Gdansk, a port town that was the birthplace of the Polish Solidarity movement.
“This is like a rally in the U.S.,” said Romney’s wife, Ann, as she waved to the crowd.
Several hours later, Romney received an endorsement from former President Lech Walesa, praise that could resonate with Polish-American voters in swing states like Ohio.
Praise From Walesa
“I wish you to be successful,” Walesa said through a translator. “Governor Romney -- be successful!”
Romney has called Russia, Poland’s historic enemy, America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” and accused Obama of a “sudden abandonment” of Poland because the president delayed - - and then revived -- plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.
Poles, who see missile defense as a bulwark against a possible return of Russian aggression, had invested great effort in agreeing to the plan proposed by President George W. Bush. The White House announcement that it wouldn’t move forward with the plan came on Sept. 17, 2009, 70 years to the day after the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland two weeks after Nazi Germany attacked from the west.
Walesa told Poland’s news station TVN24 that he was deeply disappointed.
“The Americans have always only taken care of their own interests, and they have used everyone else,” Walesa said, according to Der Spiegel.
A month later, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would proceed with a smaller project in a new format, called the Phased Adaptive Approach, on the same basic schedule. There’s lingering concern about the missile system, though, because of uncertainty about U.S. defense budget cuts, said Fran Burwell, director of the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
Romney is trying to capitalize on those strains, as well as on concerns that a U.S. defense tilt toward Asia would reduce Eastern Europe’s importance to Washington decision makers.
A June Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes toward the U.S. found that 50 percent of Poles have confidence in Obama’s leadership, whereas 41 percent said the same about Bush in 2008. The survey sampled 1,001 adults in Poland, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Some foreign-policy experts were puzzled by Romney’s decision to include the former Soviet satellite in his three- country tour.
“Korea, Indonesia or India: I would see all those of being more at the center of global affairs than Poland,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, a public policy group in Washington.
A Romney aide told reporters yesterday the campaign initially also wanted to visit Germany, the focus of the euro- zone crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the aide said, was on vacation and unable to meet.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at email@example.com; Lisa Lerer in Warsaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com; Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org