A slightly shorter and slightly different version of this article appeared Friday in the International Herald Tribune / New York Times.
That Palestinians aren't joining their Israeli neighbors in crossing their fingers for a Mitt Romney victory in the U.S. election should not come as big surprise to the Republican presidential nominee. Palestinians have had their fair share of disappointment with President Barack Obama, but recent weeks have taught them that candidate Romney is not in the business of befriending them at all. At the end of July, while visiting Israel, Romney offended Palestinians by saying that the “difference in economic vitality” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is because of Palestinian “culture”. Palestinian leaders tagged Romney’s comments as “racist”.
Last week, Romney added injury to insult at the same event that landed him in trouble for his comments about the 47% of Americans who are “dependent on government”. While the dependent Americans comment took attention away from almost everything else Romney said in that miserable fundraiser, he also said that the Palestinians have "no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish". It was a crowd containing Jewish philanthropists and donors, so I guess the candidate felt he hadn’t much choice but to make his point crystal clear.
So clear it is. And expectedly, some commentators, Palestinian and other, reacted to these no-peace predictions with anger. “His comments seemed to reflect the views of his billionaire benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged $100 million to elect Romney”, wrote one commentator. That might be true. But it is also true, at least when it comes to estimating the chances for peace, that Romney’s words reflect what most Israelis and Palestinians would see as quite trivial. A July poll found that “[m]ajorities among Israelis (71%) and Palestinians (68%) view the chances for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel in the next five years as low or non-existent”. No one in this region in his right mind sees an opening for peace at the moment.
Moreover, at least when it comes to skepticism regarding Palestinian intentions, Romney’s words reflect what the vast majority of Jewish Americans believe. Nothing shocking or out or the ordinary. In the American Jewish Committee annual survey of Jewish opinion (2011), a whooping 76% of respondents agreed with the statement: “The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel”. Of course, there’s room for debate regarding Palestinian intentions. Romney says that they do not want peace. The Palestinian public – like many other publics – is not always clear when its intentions are under the microscope. They support negotiations, but by a “2 to 1 margin they also oppose the two-state solution that’s been the stated goal of negotiations”. Most prefer “ending up with a single state”. And Romney could argue that wanting a single state is equivalent to wanting no peace, to wanting the ultimate dissolution of Israel.
So there’s nothing revolutionary about the candidate’s analysis of the prospects for peace, or about his interpretation of Palestinian intentions. Except that presidential candidates aren’t analysts of peace prospects or interpreters of peace intentions.
For Romney, the prospect of being able to talk to the Palestinians about their intentions was gravely harmed by his unnecessary comments. Thus, his ability to make the unlikely peace more likely, or to create the conditions that will make such peace achievable in the future, even a distant future, was compromised. Romney might have needed to say all those things – and then some – by way of pushing the restart button on a mechanism that the Obama administration irresponsibly managed to destroy. But to achieve such goal, Romney should first have shared his wisdom on peace-making with the Palestinians themselves, in private, and not accidentally with a group of Jewish voters in Florida.