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"With friends like these..." on Romney's comments about Israeli and Palestinian culture

If all Mitt Romney has to suggest is outright war, his efforts at establishing credentials in statesmanship can hardly be called successful.

David Alpher
31 July 2012

In his recent visit to Israel, Mitt Romney inserted a series of unfortunate feet into his mouth, with one single comment—that it was something inherent in the Israeli and Jewish culture, which has given Israel such an economic advantage over the Palestinians. To make a statement like this about the Palestinians, who have so little control over their own economy, territory and security shows a gross misunderstanding of the situation as it stands.

First: to visit the area and make no effort to meet with Abbas or to visit Palestinian territory makes the statement that in the effort to ensure his support for Israel is unquestionable, he is ignoring the state and nature of the other population that makes up the complex equation of the area. The most crucial issues of the area are not Israeli issues, but Israeli and Palestinian issues, and can only be resolved by some form of collaborative diplomacy between the two. The status of Jerusalem —which, in a further departure from established American diplomatic history, Romney states baldly as the Israeli capital—water, settlements, economics… the list goes on. Each of these issues is one in which Israel and the Palestinians are locked inextricably in conflict with each other, until a way can be found, through diplomatic means, to extricate them peaceably. The only alternative to this is outright war, and if this is Romney’s suggestion, his efforts at establishing credentials in statesmanship can hardly be called successful.

Second, the statement that culture somehow has anything to do with the economic success of Israel versus the impoverished status of the Palestinians, is not only indicative of bigotry towards the Palestinians, but also towards Jews. The age-old trope that Jews are just good with money has been used against the Jewish people since time immemorial, it seems. Even when used positively, as Romney seems to have intended, it still serves to fuel the negative anti-Semitic stereotypes. Regarding the Palestinians, the idea that somehow it is culture, and not occupation, which is to blame for their lack of a functional economy is outrageously offensive —as has been loudly noted by the Palestinians themselves. The Romney camp countered by saying that he made the same comparison about Mexico and the United States in the same comment, as though this somehow abrogated the negativity of the comment. One wonders how long it will take Mexico to take offense at this comparison—which regardless is specious, given the lack of similar political characteristics in Mexico and the Palestinian territories. Taken in that greater context, the comment speaks more to a sense of racial superiority from Romney than it does to even-handedness.

Third, here is a basic lesson in diplomacy for Romney: there are at least two sides in any dispute, and the actions of an outsider can either help or hurt that situation. The United States has historically been one of the very few outside parties trusted to intervene within this very complicated situation, and Clinton, Carter and others have shown how far that mediatory role can go towards building stability in the region. George W. Bush discovered the limitations of that trust when he—unlike the presidents before him—stated baldly that the United States was on Israel’s side… a comment which unsurprisingly alienated the Palestinians and ensured that the US would have no further meaningful role as a mediator during his tenure. Obama, for all his failings regarding the region, has not made the same mistake, but even should Romney win the Presidency, he has now ensured that the Palestinians will brook no substantive US involvement, and his efforts will be limited only to the most partisan support for Israel. This may please some hard-line supporters of Israel—but one hopes that more strategically-minded heads will prevail, and recognize that support of the kind that tends to increase the probability of intransigence or violence from the other side is no support at all.

In addition to the diplomatic lesson that one should never suggest that one party to a conflict is an inherently inferior people, Romney has also failed to recognize that diplomacy is not something done by only one side, but the privilege of equals. Equal in power, at least inasmuch as the playing field is nominally even as it would be if, for example, both sides were sovereign nations. The entire premise of international relations is based upon the idea that the sole legitimate unit of measurement on the international stage is the sovereign state—which the Palestinians have been denied, and having been denied, they lack the negotiating resources and platform available to other nations. 

The greatest privilege of the powerful is to be ignorant of the dynamics of power that surround them, and Romney has just made it clear that he does not understand this. These are delicate times, with unrest on the rise in the West Bank and Gaza, the spectre of war with Iran looming, and the very immediate danger of spillover conflict from Syria.

Israel should be looking for support that will help ameliorate, not exacerbate its security situation. Romney has just shown himself to be an unreliable ally in that context; if the US is to have any meaningful role in the resolution of conflict between these two peoples, it cannot now come with him at the helm.

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