Does Mitt Romney Even Know a Single Thing About the Middle East?

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was virtually blasted on Monday during his visit to Israel, when he managed to universally offend Palestinians by perhaps implicitly insulting their culture. He incorrectly emphasized the differences between Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s GDP, and also acknowledged that the differences in their prosperity were results of ‘culture’ among other things. Every culture seeks a universal equal right for respect of who they are, but in recognizing Israeli and Palestinian cultural differences, Romney’s language minefield highlighted one of the most severe conflict issues in the world.  As the late Edward Said wrote, “Ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.”

The controversy has attracted array of judgments over his foreign policy credentials and diplomacy skills. “All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education. He doesn’t know the region, he doesn’t know Israelis, he doesn’t know Palestinians, and to talk about the Palestinians as an inferior culture is really a racist statement,” said Saeb Erekat, top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Funnily enough, the World Bank noted five days earlier in the organization’s report on the Palestinian Authority’s economy, that the private sector cannot grow because Israeli restrictions remain the biggest impediment to investing, creating high uncertainty and risk. Further, their lack of mobility and abundance of checkpoints through the areas can account for lack of resources and investors for economic growth.

Whether he intended to or not, Romney royally failed to acknowledge the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, placed a value-judgment on the Palestinian culture, and did no favor to Israelis or Palestinians with his statement. It is not culture, but Israel’s sovereignty that is in fact the reason why they economically outshine in comparison to the Palestinian Authority. If anything, Palestinians deserve cultural recognition based on their ability to survive even within the barriers of the territories. Cultures naturally overlap, interact, and evolve, and the fact that a Palestinian culture has managed to remain relevant in regards to the current circumstances is all the more important. More appropriately, their cultural survival should be given equal respect separately. Cultural diversity should not be ranked, but appreciated, and by appreciating diversity it only enhances an individual's liberty and an individual's rights to human equality. 

It makes sense that the reason behind the visit does not have much to do with the Israelis or Israeli interest, but to bolster Romney’s support in the United States among the voter population. But, seeking to bolster support should not be at the expense of the Palestinian people and their struggling nation. The history and the uniqueness of the Palestinian occupation cannot be ignored, as it only prevents Americans from constructive dialogue regarding Middle East foreign policy. Romney has responded to the criticisms denying that he spoke about Palestinian culture. He went further, simply stating “that the choice a society makes impacts the economy and vitality of that society.” So the question is, in order for the Palestinian Authority to be capable of economic prosperity, and the appropriate cultural recognition, what has to change? 

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Jamilah Al-Harake

Jamilah, an American-Lebanese originally from United States, lives in the Middle East. She received a B.S. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, studied professional development at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and received a M.A. in International Affairs from the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon. She is an avid activist and writer, and has worked with the Carnegie Middle East Center, ILO, and UNHCR on numerous research projects in the region. She shares an unique interest in Lebanese, Syrian, and Iranian politics. She is educated and proficient in English, French, and Arabic.

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