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Romney, Culture, and the Middle East

US Repulican party presidential candidate Mitt Romney stands in front of a picture of the Jerusalem Old City walls at an event in Jerusalem on July 29, 2012
In late 1999 I spent a day reporting in the West Bank from a delivery truck operated by Al-Haya Food Industries, a venerable Palestinian meat company. My escorts were Halil Masaud and Iyad Al-Amleh, the truck’s two-man crew, and together we weaved our way to their appointed rounds along the notoriously dangerous Fire Valley Road.

My purpose was to convey to readers how Israeli occupation subverts the Palestinian economy along with the rest of its society. Had they been given the choice, Halil and Iyad would have taken the Al-Quds Road via Jerusalem, which would have significantly reduced the length of their daily journey, and therefore its costs. (Motorists on the Al-Quds Road were also blessed with two lanes while the Fire Valley Road was a single strip of pot-holed tarmac. At one of its many blind corners, Iyad swerved violently to avoid an oncoming tractor-trailer that clipped his rear-view mirror as it roared past us.) But because of Israeli-imposed restrictions that all but prohibit Palestinians from traveling through Israeli territory, the Fire Valley Road was, and no doubt still is, a heavily trafficked artery of an apartheid system.

I thought of Halil and Iyad after hearing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remark in Jerusalem that culture “makes all the difference” in explaining why the Israeli economy is larger and more dynamic than its Palestinian counterpart. The fact that the West Bank and Gaza have been under Israel’s absolute control for the last forty-five years apparently did not figure in Romney’s analysis, which is no surprise coming as it did from a man who once implied US Middle East policy should be outsourced to his old pal, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.

Romney’s overseas tour, which also included stops in Britain and Poland, was supposed to establish him as a leader on the global stage. Having managed to offend the Brits by suggesting they were not prepared for the Olympic Games, however, and by gratuitously insulting the Palestinians and by implication their fellow Arabs, he made the prospect of a Romney presidency worthy of fear as well as ridicule. Not only did he “badly flub” the economic output of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, according to the Associated Press, his reference to the book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations as inspiration for his faith in the “power of culture” as an economic determinant was similarly misplaced. In the book, author David Landes makes a point of praising the ecumenical quality of the Medieval Arab caliphates that allowed its Jewish subjects to thrive both culturally and economically alongside their Christian and Muslim counterparts.

Had Romney or anyone else been even remotely interested in the root cause of the Palestinian Authority’s feeble economy they needed only refer to a World Bank report on the subject released last week. It identifies Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its incarceration of Gaza as “the biggest impediments” to free enterprise there. Economic growth, according to the report, “cannot be sustained without the lifting of Israeli restrictions on movement and access.”

In the perpetual campaign that is the American presidency, fairness and accuracy are the first casualties, particularly as they relate to the Middle East.

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Stephen Glain

Stephen Glain is a freelance journalist and author based in Paris. For two decades, as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, he covered Asia, the Middle East and the policy sausage factories of Washington, D.C. He is the author of two books: Mullahs, Merchants, and Militants: The Economic Collapse of the Arab World (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) and State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire (Crown Books, 2011).

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