Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann board their charter plane in Tel Aviv, Israel as they travel to Poland, Monday, July 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Having publicly pledged a "solemn duty and moral imperative" to protect Israel, Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the nearby Palestinians.
"As you come here and you see the GDP 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 Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who breakfasted around a U-shaped table at the luxurious King David Hotel.
The economic disparity between the Israelis and the Palestinians is actually much greater. 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, according to the World Bank.
Romney, seated next to billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson at the head of the table, said he had read books and relied on his own business experience to understand why the difference is so great.
"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, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the "hand of providence."
The reaction of Palestinian leaders was quick and strong.
"What is this man doing here? Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn't this racism? Israelis and Palestinians have a conflict, but they are people, they are equal, it is not a better culture or advanced culture," said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official.
"It's Israeli occupiers and Palestinians under occupation, and that's why Palestinians cannot realize their potential," he said.
The breakfast with top donors — including Adelson, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson and hedge fund manager Paul Singer — concluded Romney's visit to Israel, the second leg of a three-nation overseas tour designed to bolster the his foreign policy credentials.
Standing on Israeli soil for the first time as the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, Romney on Sunday declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the Jewish state and said the United States has promised never to "look away from our passion and commitment to Israel."
The status of Jerusalem is a critical issue in peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
During his visit to Israel, Romney did not meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or visit the West Bank. He held a brief meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Romney's campaign says his trip abroad, which began in England last week, is aimed at improving the former Massachusetts governor's foreign policy experience through a series of meetings with foreign leaders. The candidate has largely avoided direct criticism of U.S. President Barack Obama while on foreign soil.
The Jerusalem fundraiser, however, was a political event that raised more than $1 million for Romney's campaign. It marks at least the second finance event during his tour. The first, in London, attracted about 250 people to a $2,500 per person fundraiser.
Both presidential candidates have aggressively courted American donors living abroad, a practice that is legal and has been used for decades.
Several donors were among those gathered in Jerusalem for Romney's speech on Sunday.
Romney's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital was keeping with claims made by Israeli governments for decades, even though the United States, like other nations, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv.
His remarks on the subject during his speech drew a standing ovation from his audience, which included Adelson, the American businessman who has promised to donate more than $100 million to help defeat Obama.
Adelson was among a several donors who flew to Israel for a day of sightseeing with Romney in addition to private meetings with top Israeli officials.
A group of donors also met with a top aide to President Benjamin Netanyahu, one donor said on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings.
Romney met with Netanyahu and other leaders before the speech. He also visited the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, where he was mobbed by worshippers.
In his remarks, Romney steered clear of overt criticism of Obama, even though he said the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran "has only become worse" in the past five years.
In an unspoken rebuttal to Obama and other critics, Romney said, "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.
"The opposite is true. We are the true peacemakers," he said.
Romney flew to the Middle East from Britain, where he caused a stir by questioning whether officials there were fully prepared for the Olympic Games. A stop in Poland will complete his trip.
Four years ago, Obama visited Israel as a presidential candidate, part of a five-nation trip meant to establish his own foreign policy credentials.
A goal of Romney's overseas trip is to demonstrate his confidence on the world stage, but his stop in Israel also was designed to appeal to evangelical voters at home and to cut into Obama's support among Jewish voters and donors. A Gallup survey of Jewish voters released Friday showed Obama with a 68-25 edge over Romney.
Romney and other Republicans have said Obama is insufficiently supportive of Israel.
In a March speech before a pro-Israel lobby in Washington, Obama warned of "loose talk of war" that serves only to drive up oil prices. "Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and sustain the broad international coalition we have built," he said at the time.