Romney stands near a map of Israel on his campaign plane en route to Poland. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
GDANSK, Poland—Mitt Romney ended his trip to Israel on a controversial note, angering Palestinian officials by suggesting Israelis have been more economically successful because of their culture.
"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," Romney told a group of Jewish donors at a Jerusalem fundraiser that netted more than $1 million for his campaign.
The Republican candidate told supporters he began noting "enormous disparities" between neighboring countries during his time in the business world and cited a 1998 book, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" by David Landes, which studied why some countries did better than others.
"He says if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it's this: Culture makes all the difference," Romney told supporters. "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's comments didn't sit well with key Palestinian leaders, including Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who told the Associated Press that Romney's comment was a "racist statement."
"This man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation," Erekat told AP. "It seems to me this man (Romney) lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people… He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority."
The Associated Press's Kasie Hunt was the first to report on Romney's remarks during the fundraiser, which was open to a small pool of reporters and took place just before he left Israel for Poland. Shortly after Romney's arrival here, a campaign aide issued a transcript of Romney's remarks, in which he also mentioned economic disparities between the United States and Mexico and Chile and Ecuador—which had not been noted in initial reports of his comments.
His words come just a day after the former Massachusetts governor met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in what a senior Romney aide, speaking on background, described as a friendly meeting. The aide said the pair's discussion largely centered on economic development—which is notable, considering Romney's remarks on Monday.
But Romney's comment on culture wasn't the only thing that angered Palestinian officials. On Sunday, the candidate called Jerusalem "the capital of Israel"—wading into a contentious debate in the region, as both Israelis and Palestinians have claimed rights to Jerusalem.