On a trip Mitt Romney hoped would impress America’s allies, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee managed to anger the nation’s potential adversaries — particularly Palestinian leaders, who felt Mr. Romney’s comments during his trip to Israel smacked of racism.
A day after drawing the ire from Palestinians for saying he considers Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel, Mr. Romney ignited another firestorm on Monday when he suggested during a high-dollar fundraiser with Jewish donors that the Israeli culture has allowed them to be more economically successful than their Palestinian neighbors.
“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 a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality,” Mr. Romney said, adding that “culture makes all the difference.”
He said that held true in other international pairings, too: Chile and Ecuador, and the U.S. and Mexico.
But Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, took umbrage, saying the comments were out of touch with the reality of the Middle East.
“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,” Mr. Erekat said. “It seems to me this man, he lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people. He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”
The fiery response, echoed by other Palestinian leaders, came as Mr. Romney wrapped up a two-day swing through Israel and arrived in Poland, where Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and Nobel Prize winner, gave the Republican a warm welcome, telling him through a translator that “I wish you to be successful.”
The friendly embrace from Mr. Walesa, though, largely was overshadowed by the angry Palestinian response to the remarks about culture Mr. Romney made earlier in the day during breakfast fundraisers at the swanky King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to weigh in on Mr. Romney’s theory of cultures, but said the reaction from Palestinians shows the Republican candidate needs to be careful on the international stage. “It is clear that there are some people who have taken a look at those comments and are scratching their heads a little bit,” he said.
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said her boss’s comments had been “grossly mischaracterized” and the campaign released a more complete transcript of his remarks in an attempt to clear the air.
The dustup came a day after Mr. Romney said Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel — which is the official position of U.S. law, though Mr. Obama and his two predecessors have declined to move the embassy from Tel Aviv.
Palestinians said that declaration could undercut Middle East peace talks, since they also claim Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
At the White House, Mr. Earnest said Mr. Obama disagrees with Mr. Romney’s position. “It’s the view of this administration that the capital is something that should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties,” he said, before reminding reporters that former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan shared Mr. Obama’s view.
• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.