Mitt Romney took a lot of flak for his comment that the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian economic prosperity could be chalked up to “culture” (and God and a “few other things” that went unspecified). Perhaps chastened, Romney initially denied he was talking about Palestinian culture, though he plainly was. Then, true to form, he reversed himself.
Romney doubled down and, before long, penned an article in the National Review titled “Culture Does Matter.” The presumptive GOP presidential nominee placed his comments about Israel squarely into his flawed Freedom Agenda. He wrote:
Like the United States, the state of Israel has a culture that is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law. It is a democracy that has embraced liberty, both political and economic. […] Israelis, Palestinians, Poles, Russians, Iranians, Americans, all human beings deserve to enjoy the blessings of a culture of freedom and opportunity.
Leaving aside that modern Israel was founded in part by collectivist farmers (Romney cancelled a meeting with their political descendants), the trope stems from Romney’s apparent interest in two books he’s read — but didn’t read very carefully.
But what Romney left out almost entirely on his trip to the Mideast — unlike his father, who visited Israel in 1967 — was the Palestinians. Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times that, “Much of what is wrong with the U.S.-Israel relationship today can be found in that Romney trip.” Were Romney to bother, he would have seen he was wrong:
[H]ad Romney gone to Ramallah he would have seen a Palestinian beehive of entrepreneurship, too, albeit small, but not bad for a people living under occupation…. In short, Romney didn’t know what he was talking about.
As for “freedom” as a stand-in for cultural traits that lead to prosperity, Altantic writer Robert Wright noted that, “I’m sure many Palestinians agree they could use more freedom, and that this would have economic benefits”:
I mean, leave aside the left-right argument about whether Israeli or Palestinian leaders are more responsible for the failure to reach a two-state solution back when that was still possible. Do you have any idea how offensive Romney sounds to the vast majority of Palestinians who definitely can’t be blamed for this failure to seize past moments?
Romney did find some support for his statement, though. Former House Speaker and failed Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich seemed to accept that Romney was indeed ripping Palestinian culture — despite belonging to a non-existant people — as inferior to Israel’s. It’s no surprise that they would find synergy on this. In a December debate, Gingrich said of the Palestinians, “These people are terrorists.” Romney responded: “I happen to agree with most of what the Speaker said.”