Mitt Romney in Jerusalem: Another city, another gaffe (or two)?

Mitt Romney traveled well-trod ground among US presidential candidates, calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel. But then he went another potential gaffe further with a comment on culture and prosperity.

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    Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a speech in Jerusalem, Sunday.
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Mitt Romney wanted to use his trip to Israel to differentiate himself from President Obama, but instead he ended up sounding like Mr. Obama – the 2008 presidential candidate, that is.

Governor Romney caused a stir when he said in a speech Sunday that “it is a deeply moving experience to be in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.” That actually sounded milder than what then-Sen. Barack Obama said in June 2008, when he insisted that Jerusalem must “remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

Romney’s statement on Jerusalem was not well received by the Palestinians, but the candidate didn’t stop there, adding a comment Monday about culture and prosperity that elicited even more condemnation.

Aside from angering the Palestinians, the problem with referring to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is that, officially, the United States – in line with most of the international community – does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Instead, it considers the city’s status an issue to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem – seized by Israel in the 1967 war – as their capital.

As a result, the US keeps its embassy in Tel Aviv.

In both cases – Obama in 2008 and Romney this week – the candidates backtracked from their statements. In Romney’s case, he told CNN after his speech that “It’s long been the policy of our country to ultimately have our embassy in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem,” adding that “I would follow the same policy we have in the past.”

After his comment in 2008, Obama – also in an interview with CNN – said that “obviously” it would be “up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues” and that “Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations.” He added, however, that a division of the city “would be very difficult to execute,” and he said he still envisioned “a system in which everybody has access to the extraordinary religious sites in Old Jerusalem but that Israel has a legitimate claim on that city.”

Romney’s echoing of Obama circa 2008 made it seem as though overstepping US policy on Jerusalem has become established practice for a presidential candidate.

But before leaving Israel Monday for Poland and the last stop of his three-country trip, Romney made another comment that not only had Palestinians up in arms, but which added one more flat note to the image of the Republican presidential hopeful’s gaffe-prone international foray.

At a breakfast fund-raising event in Jerusalem Monday, Romney said he couldn’t help but notice the “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and “the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority,” and he concluded, “Culture makes all the difference.”

No mention from the would-be US president of the trade and mobility restrictions that Israel maintains over the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza – restrictions that both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said for years are key factors in hampering Palestinian economic growth.

Palestinian leaders quickly blasted Romney’s “culture” comment as “racist” and added that he failed to take into account the impact of Israel’s tight grip on the Palestinian economy.

Yet while Romney did not seem interested in answering Palestinian critics, he did seem focused on reaching not just US Jewish voters but also Christian conservatives whose support for the Mormon former Massachusetts governor has been lukewarm.

In his speech, Romney sounded almost Biblical when he said that he recognized the “power” of “a few other things” besides just culture in Israel’s accomplishments, adding that he also saw the “hand of providence in selecting this place.”

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