What Romney Got Wrong in Israel

The presidential candidate's simplistic narratives about innate greatness fail to explain either Israel's accomplishments or America's challenges.

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Romney waves as he leaves the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City (Reuters)

In presidential races, the gaffes get the headlines, but the prepared texts and advisers are more telling. Mitt Romney's widely reported blunders in his six-day trip to Britain, Israel and Poland dominated press coverage, but the candidate's prepared comments and the aides who advised him were far more disappointing.

At a fundraiser in Jerusalem this week, Romney said that aspects of Israel's culture explained why the average per capita income in Israel was twice that of the Palestinians. Within hours, Palestinian officials called the statement "racist" and accused Romney of ignoring the economic impact of Israeli's military occupation of the West Bank, as well as $3 billion a year in American aid to Israel.

Romney could have dismissed the episode as a misunderstanding. But instead he stood by - and expanded - his argument that culture is why Israelis were wealthier than Palestinians.

"In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy," Romney wrote in an opinion piece published in the National Review on the final day of his trip. "But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?"

He went on to expand his line of thinking to the United States, saying that several aspects of American culture made it "the greatest economic power in the history of the earth." One, though, stands out.

"The American economy is fueled by freedom," Romney wrote. "Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality."

Throughout the trip, Romney used the same tired rhetoric. In Poland, he hailed "economic liberty." in Jerusalem, he said Israel and America "share in "the reward of economic freedom." Throughout the trip, he stuck to a simplistic narrative that America's greatness is unrivaled in human history and one sinister force - and one alone - is destroying it: big government

At the fundraiser where he made the remarks that angered Palestinians, Romney also repeatedly referred to a book written by one of his foreign policy aides titledStart Up Nation, which hailed Israel's fast-growing high-technology industry but gave a cynically selective description of its findings.

The book, in fact, argues that culture is one of several factors that combined to create Israel's high-tech boom. A central force is a government entity: the Israeli army, which conducts research and creates a culture that has fueled entrepreneurship. (Yes, a government entity, apparently, can foster entrepreneurship.) The book says that government funded R&D and research universities are vital as well. And one reviewer warned that Israel's high-tech growth could lead to a bubble if the country does not address its long-term economic challenges.

Beyond his misleading description of the book, Romney ignored rising income inequality in Israel and Poland - a major issue in the American election. Poland has one of the highest income inequality rates in Europe and an astonishing 15-year differential in life expectancy between Warsaw's poorest and wealthiest districts, the Guardian recently reported.

The Solidarity trade union - which Romney lavishly praised in his speech - criticized him for supporting "attacks on trade unions" and refused to meet with Romney. Last year, the union held nationwide demonstrations protesting rising income inequality.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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