Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who called his comments racist and out of touch.
"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," the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who breakfasted at the luxurious King David Hotel.
The reaction of Palestinian leaders was swift and pointed, as Romney continued to make missteps with his hosts on a three-country trip designed to bolster his foreign policy credentials while challenging President Barack Obama for the November election. The Israel visit was designed to appeal to the Jewish vote in a tight race.
"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," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"It seems to me this man (Romney) lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people," Erekat added. "He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority."
The economic disparity between the Israelis and the Palestinians is actually much greater than Romney stated. Israel had a per capita gross domestic product of about $31,000 in 2011, while the West Bank and Gaza had a per capita GDP of just over $1,500, according to the World Bank.
Romney, seated next to billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, told donors that he had read books and relied on his business experience to understand why the difference is so great.
"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."
Romney made no mention of the fact that Israel has controlled the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem since capturing them in the 1967 war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but continues to control access, and has enforced a crippling border blockade since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
In the West Bank, Israel retains overall control, and Palestinians only have limited self-rule. Israel controls all border crossings in and out of the West Bank, and continues to restrict Palestinian trade and movement.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said repeatedly that the Palestinian economy can only grow if Israel lifts those restrictions.
"It's Israeli occupiers and Palestinians under occupation, and that's why Palestinians cannot realize their potential," Erekat said.
The breakfast with top donors concluded the second leg of Romney's three-nation overseas tour. Poland was next Monday. Romney started last week in Britain, where he attended the opening of the London Olympics after drawing criticism, including from Prime Minister David Cameron, for calling some of the city's late-breaking preparation issues "disconcerting."
Romney and other Republicans have said Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel, but Obama still leads among Jewish voters. A Gallup survey of Jewish voters released Friday showed Obama with a 68-25 edge over Romney.
Standing on Israeli soil for the first time as the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, Romney on Sunday declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the Jewish state and said the United States has promised never to "look away from our passion and commitment to Israel."
The status of Jerusalem is a critical issue in peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Romney's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital was keeping with claims made by Israeli governments for decades, even though the United States, like other nations, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv.
During his visit to Israel, Romney did not meet with Abbas or visit the West Bank. He held a brief meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
He also met with President Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders and visited the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, where he was mobbed by worshippers.
In his remarks, Romney steered clear of overt criticism of Obama, even though he said the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran "has only become worse" in the past five years.
The Jerusalem fundraiser raised more than $1 million for Romney's campaign. A fundraiser in London attracted about 250 people to a $2,500 per person event.
Both presidential candidates have aggressively courted American donors living abroad, a practice that is legal and has been used for decades.
Adelson, the American businessman who has promised to donate more than $100 million to help defeat Obama, was among a several donors who flew to Israel for a day of sightseeing with Romney in addition to private meetings with top Israeli officials.