On what aides had labeled a “listen and learn” foreign tour, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been doing an awful lot of talking.
Not only did he inflame Palestinian sentiment by suggesting that their culture was responsible for their economic distress, he gave tacit encouragement for an Israeli strike on Iran and recognized Jerusalem as the country’s capital, despite a careful US policy of maintaining its major presence in Tel Aviv.
Not bad for two days.
After a sojourn in Britain that saw him widely reviled for injudicious comments about the readiness of London to host the Olympics, one would have thought that Romney’s aides would have kept him on a very short leash. But short of muzzling the presumptive nominee altogether, it seems that little can be done to keep him from stepping in one mess after another.
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Israel gave Romney a warm welcome, perhaps underscoring resentment of President Barack Obama’s decision not to visit the country during his first term. While Obama has pledged solid aid to Israel, he has also made outreach to Muslim countries a centerpiece of his foreign policy. One of his first major speeches as president was in Cairo, where he heralded a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world… based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Seated at a fundraiser breakfast beside billionaire Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged millions to the Romney campaign, the candidate enthused over the vibrancy of the economy in Jerusalem.
"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," he said. He also allowed that the "hand of providence" may have contributed to Israel’s economic dominance in the region.
His remarks irritated the Palestinians, who immediately responded.
"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," said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The issue of Jerusalem is also a delicate one; the city is a major symbol for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and is claimed to some extent by all. The international community does not recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital — except for Mitt Romney, that is.
“It is a deeply moving experience to be in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel," he said, opening a speech in the Holy City.
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Romney also had to spend some time walking back comments made by his foreign policy advisor, Dan Senor, who said that Romney would back unilateral Israeli action to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
"If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability the governor would respect that decision," Senor told reporters.
Romney himself used softer language, but said essentially the same thing.
"I recognize the right of Israel to defend itself,” he told ABC News. “At the same time as two nations we are both committed to employing every means we have to keep Iran from pursuing nuclear following."
Romney refused to rule out military options to accomplish this goal.
Romney had stated publicly that he would refrain from criticizing the president during this trip, and that he was not going to make any new foreign policy.
But he cannot seem to help himself. His remarks, which were warmly greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were also a slap at his opponent. Obama has tried to tamp down “loose talk of war” as he has called Romney’s saber rattling on Iran; in Israel, Romney hit back:
“It is sometimes said that those who are the most committed to stopping the Iranian regime from securing nuclear weapons are reckless and provocative and inviting war," Romney said. "The opposite is true. We are the true peacemakers."
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Romney went to Israel to shore up his reputation as a friend of Israel, hoping to boost his support among American Jewish voters as well as Evangelical Christians.
It is too soon to tell whether his trip will help him more than it hurts him. The race is a dead heat, and shows no signs of breaking any time soon. The latest Gallup poll has Romney and Obama neck and neck, each with 46 percent of the national vote.
Little has changed over the past several weeks, despite numerous attack ads, strenuous campaigning and aggressive “messaging” by both sides.
Romney is now in Poland, where he is meeting with Lech Walesa, the labor union leader who wet on to become the president of Poland.
So far, at least, he seems not to have offended anybody. But stay tuned.