Mitt Romney comes by his reputation as a flip-flopper and dissembler fairly. His tax-paying history, views on health care, record as a Bain executive -- no one, including Romney himself it often appears, knows the whole truth about him, and what's worse the former Massachusetts governor doesn't seem keen on telling us. Perhaps this is why when Romney managed this week to verbalize a theory that actually makes a lot of sense so many immediately dismissed it for the simple reason that Mitt Romney said it.
"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and 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 such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.
"Culture makes all the difference. 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."
Call it what you want -- bald-faced pandering to rich Jewish donors and pro-Israel voters (a lot of whom, by the way, aren't actually Jews), or even racist, which is how the Palestinian government's Saeb Erakat termed it -- but the Republican candidate's comment during a speech in Jerusalem about the primacy of Israeli culture as compared to Palestinian culture was a fair point.
He didn't tell the whole story, of course -- Romney conveniently left out the not-insubstantial part about how Israel's control of many (but not all -- the Jewish state does not encircle Palestinian territories after all) points of entry into the West Bank and Gaza restricts Palestinians' freedom of movement and makes the passage of supplies much, much more difficult (it also, we must note, makes the passage of terrorist-related goods and services more difficult).
But Israel is only part of the Palestinians' problem -- and not even the most significant one facing that long-suffering people, as I will now show you.
A thought-experiment: suppose starting today Israel doesn't exist. There are no Jews in the Middle East (to avoid things getting too heavy here let's just say each Jew in Israel received a can't-miss job offer in North America and decided it was in his/her best interest to relocate, irrespective of the situation on the ground). The Palestinians have control of Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Hebron. No more border crossings, no more blockades.
What happens next?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say problem solved, but take a moment and you'll realize that's not really true. Because the Palestinians still have to deal with their own culture, the very thing Romney was alluding to.
There would still be two terrorist groups vying for power -- and with Israel gone, whom would Fatah and Hamas have to fight but each other (even more than they do now)? There would still be a broken bureaucracy which gives no indication it is interested in democratic reform (I'm always amused when the aforementioned Palestinian "chief negotiator," or whatever he's being called these days, Mr. Erakat makes the news, as he did responding to Romney -- this guy's dizzying career of joining, quitting and rejoining Palestinian government, such as it is, reeks of cronyism) or constructing a viable economy. And, as the horrifying news this week of a woman murdered by her abusive husband -- he slit her throat in a public market in Bethlehem -- for the crime of seeking a divorce proves, there are some pretty gruesome, backward human rights habits festering on the Palestinian street.
Could the Palestinians change? Sure they could (and more people than they think hope they will). But there are no guarantees. As the various iterations of the Arab Spring are proving, bold grassroots campaigns (of which there are some in the Palestinian territories) can get the ball rolling, but evil, inept leaders can be damn tough to unseat (see Assad, Bashar), and even in those cases where they are banished there are new tyrants to deal with (see military rulers, Egypt). And if you can get rid of those bad guys, too, there are still deep sectarian gulfs to bridge -- and this, as we're seeing now in Iraq, may actually be the toughest nut to crack.
But yes, it can be done, even in the Middle East. A strong political culture, founded on human rights, honest governance (an oxymoron, but you get the point) and the prospect of collective and individual prosperity can be built, and if you want proof I'll give it to you. It's Israel, obviously. A country composed of disparate peoples who for the most part believe in the same god but believe in him in widely divergent ways that are deeply at odds with each other oftentimes. Whose founders' solution to being oppressed was to create a fully-functioning democracy. Who share a border with a sworn enemy yet manage not to be consumed by rage and militarism, have built an oasis in the desert and developed a burgeoning modern economy.
This is what Mitt Romney, and I too, call a winning culture. And if the Palestinians seriously aspire to a land of their own, that is where they must start. By building a national political culture that will impress on the world -- and more importantly on themselves -- that they can indeed handle running their own show.
It's an uncomfortable theory, I'll grant you that, but it's the truth. And honesty, even when it comes from the mouth of Mitt Romney, is still honesty.