Will Palestinians accept Romney's outstretched hand?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is trying to step back from harsh remarks made about Palestinians earlier in the campaign.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pauses during a campaign rally on Monday, Oct. 8, in Newport News, Va.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has softened his message to Palestinians, even as he makes mending ties with Israel a main foreign policy plank.

In a foreign policy address yesterday, he vowed to restart moribund talks to create a Palestinian state after they faltered under President Obama – a sharp contrast to a video made public earlier in the campaign that showed Mr. Romney telling a group of donors such negotiations had little chance of success.

 "On this vital issue, the president has failed, and what should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the United Nations," he said yesterday. "In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new President will bring the chance to begin anew."

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said she wasn’t comforted by the shift, and that she’s disturbed by Romney’s vow of "zero daylight" between the US and Israel – a promise seen as an appeal to Jewish voters frustrated by frequent spats between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Palestinian minds, American "bias" toward Israel is exactly why negotiations are stuck.

"So long as you think that Israel can do no wrong, and allow it to act with entitlement, and impunity, there will be no peace,’’ she says. "That is what plagued the peace process."

But among Israelis, that message is likely to win Romney some support. The public bickering with the Obama administration has Israelis disturbed by the possibility of a chill in ties, even though many leaders have praised Obama for boosting security and intelligence collaboration between the US and Israel. Opinion polls in Israel show Israelis favoring Romney over the president. A poll taken in early September by Israeli polling organization Panels Politics found that Israelis prefer Romney over Obama by a 2 to 1 margin.

"I don’t think tone is a negligible thing," says Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv-based political commentator and editor of the Jewish Journal. "Romney promised to have a more cordial tone. Most Israelis appreciate that a US president doesn’t look to have unnecessary public fights with the Israeli government." 

However, Mr. Rosner and other Israeli commentators noted that Romney’s speech revealed little about what he would do differently from Obama regarding either Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"In principle, much of the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s foreign policy address in Virginia on Monday sounded as if it came from the era of President George Bush," wrote Chemi Shalev in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "In practice, one needed a microscope to differentiate it from the most of the policies pursued in the past four years by President Barack Obama." 

Romney, who has also highlighted his friendship with Mr. Netanyahu, first ruffled Palestinian sensitivities when he held a private fundraiser in Jerusalem this summer and suggested that Israel’s economic success, compared with Palestinians' relative lack of success, is a function of Jewish culture.

"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 at the fundraiser.

Palestinians were further deflated by remarks in a secretly taped video of a May fundraiser in which he called Palestinian leaders "extremists." 

But Palestinian expectations from the Republican nominee were already close to zero, especially after Obama – seen initially as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, especially after his speech in Cairo in 2009 –  backed off efforts midway through his first term to get Israel to agree to a settlement freeze.

Bashar Azzeh, a Palestinian youth activist who protested for reconciliation between estranged Palestinian political factions, said few young Palestinians were tuning in on Monday.  

"We are happy that we are seeing more candidates talk about the right of the Palestinians to a state," he said. But "I don’t believe that Romney has anything to offer the Palestinians."

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