GDANSK, Poland: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stirred more hard feelings on his foreign tour Monday when he told Jewish donors their culture was responsible for Israel's economic success in contrast with neighboring Palestinians.
Palestinians voiced outrage, noting Romney was ignoring Israel's history of occupation of Palestinian lands and its stringent controls over access to the West Bank and movement of residents in the territory. He also did not acknowledge the crippling Israeli economic blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Romney's remarks in Israel were intended to appeal to Jewish voters in the United States, where a new Gallup Poll showed the former Massachusetts governor running a big deficit in that voting bloc. The survey showed Obama with a 68-25 percentage point lead over the Republican challenger.
The three-country trip - Romney continued on to Poland later Monday - was designed to bolster his foreign policy credentials while he challenges President Barack Obama for a November election that remains centered on the struggling U.S. economy.
In talking about Israel's economy, Romney pointed to culture and the "hand of providence."
"As you come here and you see the GDP (gross domestic product) per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, 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," the candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who breakfasted at the luxurious King David Hotel.
Romney sat next to Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire U.S. casino owner and deeply committed backer of Israel who has pledged $100 million to help Romney defeat Obama.
Palestinian reaction to Romney's remarks was swift and pointed.
"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.
"It seems to me this man (Romney) lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people," Erekat added. "He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority."
The economic disparity between the Israelis and the Palestinians is actually much greater than Romney outlined. The World Bank reports Israel had a per capita gross domestic product of about $31,000 in 2011, while the West Bank and Gaza had a per capita GDP of just over $1,500.
"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, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the "hand of providence."
He said similar disparity exists between neighboring countries, like Mexico and the United States. Romney often highlights culture as a key to economic success and emphasizes the power of the American entrepreneurial spirit compared to the values of other countries. But his decision to highlight cultural differences in a region where such differences have helped fuel violence for generations raises new questions about his diplomacy skills.
"His comments were grossly mischaracterized," Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said later. The campaign contends that Romney's comments were broader than just the comparison between Israel and Palestine.
Romney made no mention of the fact that Israel has controlled the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem since capturing them in the 1967 war. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but continues to control access and impose a blockade since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have said repeatedly that the Palestinian economy can only grow if Israel lifts those restrictions.
"It's Israeli occupiers and Palestinians under occupation, and that's why Palestinians cannot realize their potential," Erekat said.
During his visit to Israel, Romney did not meet with Abbas or visit the West Bank. He held a brief meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
He also met with President Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders and visited the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, where he was mobbed by worshippers.
Romney started his overseas trip last week in Britain, where he attended the opening of the London Olympics after drawing criticism, including from Prime Minister David Cameron, for saying he found some of the city's preparation for the games "disconcerting."
The candidate has largely avoided direct criticism of Obama while on foreign soil. But he spoke aggressively Sunday about protecting Israel from Iranian nuclear threats and suggested that he was open to breaking with U.S. policy dating to 1967 by moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem if the Israelis asked.