Romney under Palestinian fire for unflattering remarks, but UN research backs him up

Before leaving Israel and heading to Poland, Mitt Romney threw diplomatic caution to the wind with remarks that prompted outrage from Palestinian leaders.

First, by declaring that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, Romney put himself at odds with President Obama, whose White House spokesman Jay Carney had no answer when reporters asked him to name the capital of the Jewish state.  Obama wants to leave his options open to push for a division of Jerusalem.  Romney flatly rejected any such option.

Not surprisingly, Romney's acknowledgment of Jerusalem as Israel's capital immediately drew vehement attacks from the Palestinian side.  Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator and its de facto propaganda minister, let fly with such epithets as "racist, extremist, lacking in vision."

But Romney wasn't through yet in throwing a pro-Israel gauntlet into his diplomatic brew.  At a political donors' breakfast, he offered his take on "dramatically stark differences in economic vitality" between Israel and the Palestinian territories.  Cultural differences, he opined, are at least part of the reason.

This also drew predictable Bronx cheers from the Palestinians, who again leveled "racist" accusations against the presumptive GOP presidential contender.

Mainstream media promptly pounced on what they described as  another Romney foreign policy gaffe.  But was it a gaffe, a misstep -- or did Romney hit the nail on the head with his comment about cultural differences between Israel and the Palestinians?

Ironically, a series of UN reports on lagging living standards in the Arab world backs up Romney's observation.  Over the last 10 years, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has issued a series of studies on why Arabs face critical challenges in removing stubborn barriers that impede human development.  Incidentally, these studies were conducted by independent researchers and scholars from the Arab world.

Their findings blame poor governance, lack of individual freedom and gender inequality -- the very elements that Romney summarized as "cultural" deficiencies among Palestinians.  While the UN reports range across the entire Arab world, their  findings are equally applicable to the poor performance of Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party in the West Bank and, in spades, of Hamas rule in Gaza.

Under the criteria of the UN reports, good governance in Arab societies is impeded by "political and social flaws and constraints" on human freedom and individual sense of personal security.  These are commodities  in rare supply in the Fatah-governed West Bank and in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

As for gender inequality, the UN reports tag it as a "main obstacle" to full human development.  More than half of Arab women were found to be illiterate.  The ratio may be less high in the West Bank, but Islamist repression in Gaza more than makes up for it.  The UN reports call for empowerment of women as key to prosperous societies.  As between Israel and the Palestinians, this is an area where Palestinian women still have a way to go before getting on a par with most Israeli women.

Bottom line: Far from having committed a gaffe, Romney may have been on to something significant

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers