JERUSALEM—Mitt Romney on Monday morning ignited a firestorm of criticism from Palestinian leaders after he told a group of top-level Jewish donors here that the Israeli culture had helped them become more economically successful than the Palestinians.
‘’As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and 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 such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,’’ Romney said.
Romney also referred to other neighboring countries that experience economic disparities—Chile and Ecuador, he said, or Mexico and the United States—but Palestinian leaders quickly called the comments racist and out of touch. They also said they could empower extremists, and damage the peace process.
“Today he referred to us as an inferior culture, when he said that Israelis have double our GDP,” Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator with the Israelis, said in an interview with the Globe. “I’ve never heard such a racist statement from any Israeli. Yes, we have a conflict with the Israelis. But we never go down this road of racism.”
“We need to build bridges for human rights—for women’s rights, for transparency – not people who come here and don’t know what the hell they are talking about and strengthening extremists,” he added. “This man needs a lot of education. This man managed today to harm American interests more than anything I’ve witnessed in the last three years. Such statements really did a lot of harm to American interests.”
Romney’s campaign said his comments were being taken out of context, and pointed out that he was referencing the gap between other neighboring countries. The campaign also distributed a full transcript of the remarks, something the campaign rarely does for its fundraisers.
During the remarks, Romney referenced the book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” by David Landes, saying it made points about economic vitality and how “culture makes all the difference.”
“And as I come here and I look out over this city 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,” said Romney at the fundraiser.
Romney’s trip here focused closely on praising Israel, and the American relationship with it. He rarely mentioned Palestinians in his remarks, and met with only one Palestinian leader while he was here. He also emphatically referred to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, something that Palestinians contest.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, also criticized Romney, saying, “He’s said so many outrageous things that it’s very hard to decide which one to respond to.” She said it was unfair to compare the economies of the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“You cannot compare the economy of a people who are in occupation—who don’t control exit points, who don’t control all of our land—to an economy in Israel that gets billions and billions of American dollars,” Ashrawi said in an interview with the Globe. “If we would get billions form the US, if we get presidential treatment, I’m sure our GDP would be at least 100 times what it is right now.”
“He has to be careful because this can come back and bite him. It shows a lack of knowledge of reality,” she added. “Even in the heat of the moment and trying to raise money – sooner or later, if he becomes president, he’s going to understand life is not made up of rhetoric. Leaders have to make decisions.”
She then compared the statement about the Palestinians to the one that angered London over their preparations for the Olympic Games. “You can’t just go around alienating people left, right, and center,” she said.
But at home, at least, Romney got the backing of the Anti-Defamation League.
“In terms of Jewish culture allowing us to be more successful, there is a real emphasis on education, on hard work and self-reliance,” said ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman. “If you read United Nations reports on the Arab world, part of the problem is culture. If there was universal education, if there was less conflict, they’d be more prosperous.”
One conclusion of a 2010 UN human development report on the occupied Palestinian territory was that “cultural beliefs and practices that lead to the marginalization of women, elderly and young people, the disabled, Bedouin and other minority groups, must be challenged.”
But the report also attributed much of Palestinians’ economic struggles to the “multi-faceted system of occupation employed by the state of Israel,” noting that “Israel controls Palestinian air space, territorial waters, natural resources, movement and the macro-economic instruments that enable economic autonomy.”
Foxman said he does not believe Palestinians are culturally inferior to Israelis and said Romney “was not maligning them.”
“If they’re upset by what he said, then they should be upset by what the UN has said,” Foxman added. “I don’t think Jews, Israelis, or Palestinians should be offended by what he said. This is political nitpicking.”
Romney’s comments came as he capped off a trip to Israel by holding a lucrative fundraiser at the King David Hotel, raising more than $1 million from about 45 donors.
Romney—who was joined by his wife, Ann, and son Josh—projected a deep connection to Israel that several donors later said came across in the room.
“I am overwhelmingly impressed with the hand of providence, whenever it chooses to apply itself, and also the greatness of the human spirit, and how individuals who reach for greatness and have purpose above themselves are able to build and accomplish things that could only be done by a species created in the image of God,” Romney said, according to news reports. “I come to this place, therefore, with a sense of profound humility, as I look around here at great people who’ve accomplished a great thing, and also a sense of spiritual connection, acknowledging the hand of providence in establishing this place and making it a holy city.”
Among those at the fundraiser was Sheldon Adelson, who has emerged as the biggest Republican donor and has already contributed $10 million the Restore Our Future, the Super PAC supporting Romney. He sat right next to Romney at the front of the room, with tables shaped in a horse-shoe creating an intimate atmosphere.
“This was a love-fest,” said Phil Rosen, a New York lawyer who also has a home in Jerusalem and helped organize the fundraiser.
“A success,” Spencer Zwick, Romney’s finance chairman said as he left, adding that more than $1 million was raised from about 45 people. Donors had to pay between $25,000 and $50,000 to attend.
Romney’s campaign initially was going to close the fundraiser to the press, breaking an agreement with how such events would be covered. Within 24 hours, they reversed that decision and allowed a small pool of reporters to cover Romney’s remarks. Romney also took several questions from the donors after reporters left.
After Romney began making his way to the airport – heading to Poland, for the final part of his three-leg tour—Adelson held court for more than an hour. With a cane at his side, he chatted with donors as they approached him.
“It looks like it went very well,” Adelson said as he emerged. “I don’t know about the fundraising, but certainly he came here. The fact that he’s here is much better than Obama, who hasn’t come.”
When asked whether Romney coming to Israel was a “kishkas” issue – slang for “gut” but also a Yiddish sausage – Adelson said, “I like the pastrami instead of the kishkas.”
“Look, Obama is more interested in making political decisions,” he said. “Israel is at an existential crossroads. We need the support from our only friend.”
Adelson, the casino magnate and Dorchester native, then added to a Globe reporter, “I thought you were going to ask me about whether or not I want to open a casino in Massachusetts.”
Adelson once had his eye on the Bay State, hoping to open a casino along the Interstate 495 corridor but later decided to pass because he felt three casino licenses for the state was too many.
“Too many places,” he said Monday morning. “Too diluted.”
Among those who attended the fundraiser were New York Jets owner Woody Johnson; Detroit developer John Rakolta; and Lisa Spies, who is Romney’s finance chair. Spies’ husband, Charlie, is a founder of the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.
The fundraiser also included several donors who live in Israel and emerged impressed.
“It was like a CEO breaking out a new product as opposed to philosophizing about different ways to skin a cat,” said Shmuel Wasserman, a venture capitalist who lives in Israel but is originally from New Jersey. “Clearly he has the wherewithal to, if I would put it in business terms, take an undervalued asset and return it to its former luster.”
Romney’s trip abroad has been focused on trying to show voters at home that he has the diplomatic skills to be president, with stops in London, Jerusalem and, starting Monday, Poland.
But the trip has also included a significant effort to raise campaign cash – which can only come from American citizens—and to provide additional perks to some of his top donors, some of whom sported pins that had “Romney” written in Hebrew.
While in Jerusalem, some of his donors accompanied him on his trip to the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism. They filled several of the front rows for a foreign policy speech he gave on Sunday night, with the sun setting over the Old City in the background.
“It was a bone-chilling experience for a first time visitor to Israel,” said Bob Pence, a Virginia-based commercial developer. “To be able to make the connection to Israel, to be here with this group right now…It was absolutely worth it.”
He was among those who accompanied Romney to the Western Wall. “Magical would be the wrong word, because that connotes too much mysticism. But humbling. A humbling reverence.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe correspondent Callum Borchers also contributed to this article.