US Republican presidential wannabe Mitt Romney's overseas tour may have been intended to bolster his foreign policy credentials, but so far it has been a catalogue of gaffes. Kicking off in Britain, Romney caused offence across the board with a series of faux pas, the crux of which was questioning whether London was ready for the Olympics. The second leg of the tour, to Israel, has been no less controversial, albeit for different reasons.
In a speech on Sunday, he stated flatly that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. This is a highly contentious statement. While Israeli governments have made this claim for decades, the United States, in common with other nations, keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv. This signifies that the international community does not recognise the city as Israel's capital. The status of Jerusalem – a holy city not only in Judaism but also in Islam and Christianity – is a core point in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Romney's comments appear to endorse Israel's illegal occupation of East Jerusalem.
Nor did it stop there. At a $2,500 per head fundraising event, Romney compared Israel's economic success to Palestine's: "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." He suggested that this was partly due to "the hand of providence" and the "culture" in Israel. By now, the public should be well used to the media and politicians describing Israel and Palestine erroneously as equals, but this is an extreme example: Romney's comments disregard totally the fact that Palestine is unable to reach its economic potential because it is under Israel's brutal military occupation. Moreover, Romney actually got the figures wrong – the disparity is even greater. According to the World Bank, Israel had a per capita gross domestic product of around $31,000 in 2011, while the West Bank and Gaza had a per capita GDP of just over $1,500. As Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, told Associated Press: "It seems to me that this man 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."
There are several explanations for Romney's behaviour. Firstly and most obviously, it is no secret that the political landscape in America means that any US president or presidential hopeful must court Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. Barack Obama made his own trip to the country five years ago to assert his foreign policy credentials. Yet Romney has gone a step further in his total disregard for the Palestinian perspective. He did not visit the West Bank, nor meet with Abbas. He had only a brief meeting with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian "prime minister" known for his cooperation with Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.
This is probably because Romney's trip was designed to cut into Obama's support among Jewish voters, who are more inclined to vote Democrat, with a Gallup poll on Friday showing that they prefer Obama to Romney by 68 to 25 per cent. Romney and other Republicans have said that Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel and this unequivocal and provocative show of support is clearly an attempt to prove that his dedication to the cause is greater. Republican politics have been pushed more and more radically to the right by the prevalence of evangelicals and Tea Party activists within the party, and Romney is clearly attempting to shore up his support among these voters.
Another key point is donations. When Romney declared that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, the audience gave him a standing ovation. That audience included Sheldon Adelson, the Jewish American casino mogul and top Republican donor. He originally bankrolled Newt Gingrich's primary campaign, and is now considering donating $100m to elect Romney. A big supporter of Netanyahu, Adelson publishes Israel Hayom, a free newspaper in Israel supporting "Bibi" and Likud. It goes without saying that the newspaper approved wholeheartedly of Romney's trip. The Republican candidate's senior foreign policy advisor, Dan Senor, said that Romney would respect an Israeli decision to act against Iran should the need arise. Boaz Bismuth, a writer for Israel Hayom, responded warmly: "An Israeli prime minister could not have put it better." As Juan Cole writes at the Guardian's Comment is Free, since Adelson "is a partisan of one of Israel's most right-wing parties, Romney's indebtedness to him is disturbing." This is a sentiment shared by some centrist Israelis, with Nahum Barnea warning in the mass circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth of "the use this man is making of us for objectives that have nothing to do with the genuine interests of the country".
While Romney's trip to the UK was widely accepted as a diplomatic disaster (it was dubbed "Romneyshambles" in the press), his trip to Israel may not be. This is despite the fact that the offences in London involved denigrating a sporting event while his comments in Israel are far more inflammatory and damaging. Sadly, no-one in American politics worries about offending Palestinian leaders, so the outrage caused among Arabs by Romney's injudicious remarks is likely to fall on deaf ears. In such a sensitive and complex situation, charging around like a bull in a china shop may or may not be a short-term vote winner at home. There is little doubt, however, that it is detrimental to future negotiations and the long-term aim of peace.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.