Gdansk, Poland. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney outraged Palestinians on Monday, stirring fresh controversy on his visit to Israel just days after insulting the British on what was intended as a feel-good visit to the Olympics in London.
It’s not clear whether Romney’s remarks in either country will affect his prospects for defeating President Barack Obama in the November US presidential election. The economy, not foreign affairs, has been the dominant issue in what polls show to be a tight race.
But the outrage generated by Romney’s remarks has undermined his attempt to avoid political risk as he made his first steps onto the world stage as the presumptive Republican nominee.
Romney has been visiting countries that are staunch US allies, limited questions from the media and arranged made-for-TV appearances at symbolic venues in London and Jerusalem. It was all intended to demonstrate he was ready to handle foreign affairs smoothly and lead during dangerous times.
Instead, as he made his final stop of a three-nation tour in Poland late Monday, Republicans and Democrats alike were shaking their heads in the US. Though Republicans said they saw no lasting harm, Democrats raised questions about Romney’s ability to handle delicate topics with sensitivity on foreign soil, even under the friendliest conditions.
Romney’s latest trouble stemmed from a speech he gave to Jewish donors in Jerusalem earlier Monday in which he suggested that their culture was part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians. Kind words for Israel are standard for many American politicians, but Palestinian leaders suggested his specific comments were racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East.
Romney’s campaign later said his remarks were mischaracterized.
Predictably, Obama’s campaign was critical, with senior strategist David Axelrod saying on Twitter: “Is there anything about Romney’s Rolling Ruckus that would inspire confidence in his ability to lead US foreign policy?”
It’s unclear whether voters in the US are paying attention to Romney’s stumbles, especially as worries about the economy dominate most Americans’ concerns.
Debra Hayes, a Republican-leaning independent from Denver, said Romney’s overseas comments have no impact on how she’ll vote.
“I’m interested only in the economy — jobs, and the prices of things,” said Hayes, who is undecided. “We need to stand with Israel. And our president needs to show leadership overseas. But things are going downhill at home, and that’s what matters.”
And Romney drew his share of favorable media coverage back home. A speech on Israel policy, delivered at dusk against the scenic backdrop of Jerusalem’s Old City, drew praise for its setting and delivery. He and his wife, Ann, appeared relaxed and engaged in an interview on CNN, where Ann Romney described her husband as loving and emotionally engaged.
Still, missteps in the past week have fueled opponents’ contentions that the former businessman and Massachusetts governor is out of touch with the nation and the world he hopes to lead.
As the trip got under way, Romney caused a stir in Britain by questioning whether officials there were fully prepared to host the Olympic Games. The dispute overshadowed his efforts to highlight his personal experience leading the Salt Lake City Winter Games a decade ago. Instead, Romney was widely assailed by the London media and criticized by British leaders.
Then on his first day in Israel, Romney distanced himself from an adviser’s suggestion that he would “respect” a decision by Israel to launch military action to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.
On Monday at a fundraiser, opened to the media after the campaign first said it would be closed, Romney shared a sentiment he sometimes talks about on the campaign trail in the United States and repeats in his book, “No Apology.” But his decision to highlight cultural differences in a region where such differences have helped fuel violence for generations prompted new questions about his diplomatic skills — and enraged Palestinian leaders.
Comparing economic output per capita in Israel and “across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority,” he declared that “you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.” He was speaking to about 40 wealthy Jewish American donors at the King David Hotel, which is within sight of the Palestinian territory on the West Bank.
He said some economic histories have theorized that “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,” Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the “hand of providence.” He said similar disparity exists between other neighboring countries, including Mexico and the United States.
Palestinian leaders quickly objected.
“It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “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.”
“This will cause a lot of damage to American interests,” he said.
China joined the criticism of Romney following another statement inferring that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. China said such rhetoric could worsen an already tense Mideast situation or even re-ignite a war between Palestinians and Israelis.
A commentary Tuesday by the official Xinhua News Agency said Romney’s “hawkish remarks” ignored the sensitive nature of Jerusalem. It said the comments disregarded the Palestinians’ claim to the war-won eastern sector of the city, which was annexed by Israel in 1967 in a move that is not internationally recognized.
Romney has previously upset some in China by threatening tougher action on Beijing in trade disputes if he is elected president.
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the comments, especially those referring to culture, “were grossly mischaracterized.”
The campaign added that Romney’s comparison of countries that are close to each other and have wide income disparities — the US and Mexico, Chile and Ecuador — shows his comments were broader than just the comparison between Israel and the Palestinians.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said, “One of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, particularly when you’re traveling to such a sensitive part of the world, is that your comments are very closely scrutinized for meaning, for nuance, for motivation.”
Earnest sidestepped questions about whether Obama agreed with Romney’s comments about culture, saying only that Obama believed economic issues are among the matters that would need to be addressed by the Israelis and Palestinians during any peace talks.
Romney flew on to Poland for two days of visits with leaders.
He met with former President Lech Walesa, who led the Solidarity free trade union that helped end communist rule in the 1980s, in Gdansk, earning his endorsement: “I wish you to be successful because the success is needed to the United States, of course, but to Europe as well and to the rest of the world, too. So, Governor Romney, get your success, be successful,” Walesa said through a translator.
Walesa suggested Romney’s leadership was needed to restore America’s position in the world.
Romney is to meet with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski on Tuesday before delivering his final foreign policy speech of the trip.
The Romney campaign hopes Walesa’s backing will influence Catholics and labor union members in the US But Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, told reporters Monday that the Polish visit “is nothing more than a superficial diversion and a desperate attempt to pander to Polish Americans and Catholics across our country.”
Romney’s visit to Poland was not without controversy.
Campaign officials said the visit with Walesa came at his invitation, but the current leadership of Solidarity distanced itself from the event and issued a statement critical of Romney. Solidarity characterized Romney as being hostile to unions and against labor rights. It emphasized that it had no role in organizing Romney’s visit and expressed support for American labor organizations.