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In Israel, Comments by Romney Provoke Some Palestinian Frustration

July 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the presidential election, which, over the past several days, has had its focus shifted by events abroad.

MITT ROMNEY (R): Hello. Hi. Hi, there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mitt Romney arrived in Poland today for the third leg of a trip aimed at burnishing his foreign policy credentials. On the agenda, a meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. He also sat down with former President Lech Walesa.

But much of the focus remained Romney’s weekend visit to Israel. On Sunday, he endorsed the Israeli government’s view that Iran must not be allowed to go nuclear.

MITT ROMNEY: We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course. And it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself and that it is right for America to stand with you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, Romney caused a stir when he noted Israel is far ahead of the Palestinians economically. He cited a similar disparity between the U.S. and Mexico and said, “Culture makes all the difference.”

The Palestinians denounced the remark as racist.

Saeb Erekat is a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

SAEB EREKAT, senior aide to Palestinian president: Palestinians and Israelis may be in conflict, but Palestinians and Israelis are people, equal. And such racist statements do not make — does not serve those who are trying to protect and save lives in this region. And those who are trying to maintain democracy, transparency, human rights, women’s rights are not served by such statements.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, a Romney aide rejected the criticism. She said his comments were grossly mischaracterized.

The Palestinians also complained about Romney’s statement Sunday that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital.

In Washington today, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the issue should be left to final status negotiations.

JOSH EARNEST, White House: I would remind you that that’s the position that’s been held by previous administrations, both Democrat — Democratic and Republican. So, you know, if Mr. Romney disagrees with that position, he’s also disagreeing with the position that was taken by presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: During his Middle East visit, Romney did speak with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, but not with President Abbas. And he conferred with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two have been friends since working together as business consultants in the 1970s.

The 36-hour stop in Israel was designed to help Romney broaden his support with Jewish-American voters. A Gallup poll released last month found President Obama leading 64 to 29 percent in that part of the electorate. That was down from Mr. Obama’s 78 to 21 percent advantage over John McCain in the 2008 election.

WOMAN: I think we have got to really shuffle them a little bit better, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The slide in the president’s Jewish support surfaced during a recent reporting trip by the NewsHour to South Florida.

LOLLY POLLACK, Fla.: Well, I thought he would be good for the people, especially the elder people. I thought he would be terrific for Medicare. And I thought he’d visit Israel, but he hasn’t in the years that he’s been in office. That bothered me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney’s effort to boost his standing with Jewish voters will be helped by outside groups. One called the Emergency Committee for Israel has been paying for TV ads criticizing the president.

NARRATOR: He’s traveled all over the Middle East, yet he hasn’t found time to visit our ally and friend Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who toured Israel with Romney, is part of the Republican-Jewish Coalition that has committed $6.5 million for its own ad campaign.