JERUSALEM — Mitt Romney ignited a firestorm of criticism from Palestinian leaders on Monday morning when he told a group of top-level donors here that Israelis’ culture had helped them become more economically successful than the Palestinians.
Noting that Israel’s gross domestic product per person is about $21,000, compared with that of Palestinians, “which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,’’ Romney said at the fund-raising event.
He did not mention the impact of border-crossing restrictions on movement of goods and people that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians. “As I . . . consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney said.
Palestinian leaders quickly called the comments racist, harmful to the peace process, and blind to the effects of Israeli control over border crossings in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Today he referred to us as an inferior culture, when he said that Israelis have double our GDP,” said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator with the Israelis. “I’ve never heard such a racist statement from any Israeli. Yes, we have a conflict with the Israelis. But we never go down this road of racism.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, also criticized Romney, saying in an interview: “You cannot compare the economy of a people who are in occupation — who don’t control exit points, who don’t control all of our land — to an economy in Israel that gets billions and billions of American dollars.”
Romney’s campaign said his comments were being taken out of context and pointed out that he had also referred to the gaps of unequal wealth between other neighboring countries. In his comments, he compared not only the Israeli and Palestinian economic gap, but similar disparities between Chile and Ecuador, and Mexico and the United States.
The campaign later distributed a full transcript of the remarks, something it rarely does for its fund-raisers. It did not respond to Palestinians’ specific criticism that Romney had overlooked the harmful impact on the Palestinian economy of the border restrictions.
The controversy marked the second time in the past week that Romney has upset foreigners with critical remarks. British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, both members of the Conservative Party, took umbrage last Thursday over Romney’s expressed doubts about Britain’s readiness to conduct the Olympic Games.
During the remarks at the Jerusalem fund-raiser, Romney referred to two books — “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, and “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” by Harvard emeritus professor David Landes. Landes’s book, he noted, made points about economic vitality and how “culture makes all the difference.”
Romney underestimated the gap between Israeli and Palestinian gross domestic product per capita, according to World Bank data. Its 2011 figures put the ratio at more than 15 to 1, not 2 to 1.
James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab-American Institute, said Romney’s comparison of the economies of Israel and the Palestinians played into stereotypical perceptions of Arab culture as backward and unable to adapt and thrive in a modern world. In the United States, according to census data analyzed by the institute, both the Israeli- and Palestinian-American populations claim higher income and education levels than the population at large.
Romney’s comments also elicited a response from the White House. “One of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, particularly when you’re traveling to such a sensitive part of the world, is that your comments are very closely scrutinized for meaning, for nuance, for motivation,” Obama deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said in a briefing.
Romney’s trip here focused on praising Israel and the American relationship with it. He rarely mentioned Palestinians in his remarks and met with only one Palestinian leader while he was here. He also emphatically referred to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, something that Palestinians contest. In making the comment, Romney broke with decades of US diplomacy.
At home, Romney’s comments won him the backing of the Anti-Defamation League.
“In terms of Jewish culture allowing us to be more successful, there is a real emphasis on education, on hard work and self-reliance,” said ADL national director Abraham H. Foxman. “If you read United Nations reports on the Arab world, part of the problem is culture. If there was universal education, if there was less conflict, they’d be more prosperous.”
One conclusion of a 2010 UN human development report on the occupied Palestinian territory was that “cultural beliefs and practices that lead to the marginalization of women, elderly and young people, the disabled, Bedouin and other minority groups must be challenged.”
But the report also attributed much of Palestinians’ economic struggle to the “multifaceted system of occupation employed by the state of Israel,” noting that “Israel controls Palestinian air space, territorial waters, natural resources, movement and the macro-economic instruments that enable economic autonomy.”
In Tampa, Arizona Senator John McCain, a prominent Romney surrogate, appeared to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, saying that he is “sure that Governor Romney was not talking about difference in cultures, or difference in anybody superior or inferior.”
“But facts of the booming Israeli economy has to do with the kind of government that the Israeli people have freely and democratically elected, which has given them a very prosperous country,” he said.
Romney’s comments came as he capped off a trip to Israel by holding a fund-raiser at the King David Hotel, raising more than $1 million from about 45 donors. “I am overwhelmingly impressed with the hand of providence, whenever it chooses to apply itself, and also the greatness of the human spirit, and how individuals who reach for greatness and have purpose above themselves are able to build and accomplish things that could only be done by a species created in the image of God,” Romney said. “I come to this place, therefore, with a sense of profound humility, as I look around here at great people who’ve accomplished a great thing, and also a sense of spiritual connection, acknowledging the hand of providence in establishing this place and making it a holy city.”
The fund-raiser included several donors who live in Israel and emerged impressed.
“It was like a CEO breaking out a new product as opposed to philosophizing about different ways to skin a cat,” said Shmuel Wasserman, a venture capitalist who lives in Israel but is originally from New Jersey. “Clearly he has the wherewithal to, if I would put it in business terms, take an undervalued asset and return it to its former luster.”
“This was a love-fest,” said Philip Rosen, a New York lawyer who has a home in Jerusalem and helped organize the fund-raiser.
“A success,” declared Spencer Zwick, Romney’s finance chairman, as he left the fund-raising event. Donors paid between $25,000 and $50,000 to attend.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com. Globe correspondent Callum Borchers also contributed to this article.