August 6, 2012
Mitt Romney Visits Jerusaelm on Diplomatic Tour
Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney went overseas last week and made a stop in Jerusalem on July 29-30 for meetings with officials and fundraising prior to the U.S. elections in November. The visit was controversial from several angles.
The former Massachusetts governor met with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He also gave a policy speech in front of the Old City and ended the trip with a fundraiser at the King David Hotel. He did not go to Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority seat of government, to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Before arriving to Jerusalem, Romney gave an interview with the Israeli paper Israel Hayom that set the tone for the visit. When asked what he would do differently from President Barack Obama when it came to Israel, Romney said he would not have given the speech in the UN Security Council against settlements in 2011. He told the paper, “I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world.” He was referring to the US statement in the UN Security Council in February 2011 when the U.S. vetoed a resolution supported by all other Security Council members that declared Israeli settlements to be “illegal.” In explaining her vote, US Ambassador Rice said. “… We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity...Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace…”
Romney also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s criticism of Obama in May 2011 when the Prime Minister rejected the idea of negotiating an agreement with the Palestinians on basis of the 1967 borders, saying those borders are “indefensible.” The president called for negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territorial swaps, the same position of previous Israeli governments until as recently as 2008.
While in Jerusalem, he spoke at the Jerusalem Foundation with the Old City in the background and extolled the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Much of the speech’s content was focused on being tough on Iran and there was no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Following the speech, an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer aired where Romney explained his position on Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He said, “A nation has the capacity to choose its own capital city, and Jerusalem is Israel's capital…I think it's long been the policy to ultimately have our embassy in the nation's capital of Jerusalem." When Blitzer questioned this, Romney continued, saying, “I would follow the same policy we have had in the past, our embassy would be in the capital, and the timing of that is something I would want to work out with the government.”
None of the 87 foreign embassies in Israel are located inside Jerusalem. Israelis took over the Arab quarters in 1967 during the Six-Day War and annexed East Jerusalem and the surrounding areas weeks later. In 1980, the Knesset officially passed legislation to make the city the “complete and united” capital of the Jewish nation. The international community, including the United States, does not accept the legitimacy of the annexation, believing that control of the city should be determined through negotiations. Palestinians maintain that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Congress passed a law in 1995 saying the U.S. will move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before 1999, but Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all continuously signed waivers to prevent the order.
When asked about Jerusalem on July 26, the White House released a clarification of President Obama’s position that said, “The status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians…We continue to work with the parties to resolve this issue and others in a way that is just and fair, and respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
Romney also provoked strong reactions when he said, “… as you come here [Israel] and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and you 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 a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality… 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.”
Reaction to the quote was swift as Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Associated Press, “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…It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people.”
Many outlets pointed out the inaccurate GDP numbers Romney presented. According to the CIA World Factbook, the Israeli GDP is not just over twice as much as the Palestinians’. Instead, Israel’s GDP from 2009 was roughly $29,800 and the Palestinian Territories came in at just $2,900 in 2008 (the most recent numbers on the CIA website).
Romney’s campaign said the quote was “grossly mischaracterized” but reporters noted he wrote a similar explanation for the differences in the Israeli and Palestinian economies in his 2010 book, No Apology.
More broadly, several commentators were critical of the presumptive Republican candidate fishing in troubled waters for partisan political purposes. Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times said regarding Romney’s visit and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that “…. There are real lives at stake out there. If you are not going to do something constructive, stay away…”.
Data released from the Central Bureau of Statistics this week shows that Israel’s settlement population in the West Bank has been experiencing rapid growth, increasing at a rate of 5% per year, nearly two and half times as fast as Israel’s population. Accordingly, Israeli government spending on West Bank settlements has increased by 38 percent under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As Netanyahu introduces a new austerity plan aimed to reduce Israel’s deficit through tax hikes and budget cuts, Peace Now released a proposal earlier this week aimed at reducing settlers’ benefits to the same level of the average Israeli citizen. Settlers are insulated from the majority of Netanyahu’s austerity measures. The plan highlights a few line items that would save the Israeli government NIS 1.6 billion if they were adjusted to be proportionate to the settler population.
The Israeli cabinet is also set to approve grants for building hotels on West Bank settlements, with the intention of alleviating pressure on Jerusalem where officials predict a lack of hotel space for tourists. The administrative grants provide state support for 20 percent of the cost of construction of hotels and 10 percent for construction of other tourist attractions in West Bank settlements.
Shaddad Attili, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority also released a statement on settlements Sunday, saying that Israel allocates 70 times more water to each settler than to the average Palestinian in the West Bank. Attili reported that Palestinians receive less than the amount allocated in the Oslo Accords and is about a quarter of the 400 million cubic meters needed according to international standards. This forces the Palestinian Water Authority to buy water at higher prices from Israeli companies, putting the agency billions of shekels in debt and worsening the Palestinian financial crisis.
According to Palestinian Finance Minister Nabeel Kassis, the Palestinian Authority cash crisis is getting worse, saying that it is getting harder each month to keep the cash-strapped government afloat. The Palestinian economy continues to dependent on foreign aid, as stated last week in a World Bank report, and will not be able to sustain growth until Israel ends the occupation and relieves Palestine from its trade and movement restrictions.
In an attempt to ease the current PA financial crisis, Israel and the Palestinians have reached a deal on improving Israel’s collection of customs and taxes on behalf of the Palestinians. Israel’s monthly transfers are a key source of income for the Palestinian self-rule government, but many believe the Palestinians are losing revenue because of underreporting. Under the deal Israel will now share information about economic transactions to improve tax collections.
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.