It's The Economy

08.01.12

Symbolism Isn't Enough

As has been reported widely, Mitt Romney attributed the Israelis’ economic advantage over the Palestinians to “the power of at least culture and a few other things.” Well, Mr. Romney, there are a few Palestinians you should meet, and I am sure they would be glad to discuss Palestinian culture as they give you a tour of their start-up offices in Ramallah.

The day before Romney gave his stump speech to donors in Jerusalem, Isabel Kershner wrote in the New York Times about Palestinian entrepreneurs in the West Bank who have circumvented barriers by turning to information technology (IT). “This is a sector that has no border, you just need electricity and a telephone line,” explained Murad Tahboub, managing director of Asal Technologies. And Asal is just the tip of the iceberg; Palestinian IT companies in the West Bank and Gaza now number 125.

Romney, self-proclaimed “pro-business” candidate that he is, should have known better. But more, as the man who wants to unseat the current President, he should have recognized that the entrepreneurial spirit in the West Bank must be the sine quo non of peace and stability in the Middle East. Top-down, conference-room attempts at peace have all stalled. But, as one Palestinian businessman put it,  “Palestinians and Israelis have been working together in the worst of times.” When politics don’t bring people together, budget bottom lines do.

This entrepreneurial cooperation should be the bedrock for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It augurs a peace built on foundations of intertwined interest and prosperity, rather than symbolic statements about “rights of return” and “Jewish states.” Of course, as Netanyahu himself said in his Bar Ilan speech, an economic peace cannot substitute a political peace. Economic success cannot sate nationalist urges. But a political peace that is not built on concrete, everyday advantages is bound to fall to pieces.

Romney, who consistently maintains his preference for small government that gets out of the people’s way, could have pointed to Palestinian innovators as the building blocks of a future Palestinian state. Had he done so, he might have achieved the contrast with Obama that he so craved while maintaining a tough-on-terrorism stance. Instead, he made a predictable gaffe that alienated the very entrepreneurs that Palestinians and Israelis both need. Such is the work of a former Bain CEO?