09/29/2012 09:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Would Romney Prosperity Pacts Work in Palestine?

Reuters/Lucas Jackson

After President Obama's moving UN General Assembly speech that started with a story of who U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens had been in terms of his life's passion for the Middle East and North Africa, the Romney camp issued a statement from former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky:

In his speech, President Obama listed the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, Syria, and Iran as major challenges facing the international community.  But those are three vital issues on which President Obama has unfortunately made no progress. The Peace Process is at a standstill, tens of thousands have been killed in Syria with Assad still in power, and Iran is hurtling toward nuclear weapons capability.

In his 2009 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama called for progress on the Peace Process and for an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program. Three years later, he's failed to deliver.  As has too often been the case with President Obama, the rhetoric doesn't match the policy.

The president and his national security team do deserve criticism for how some of these portfolios have been managed.  After all, Israel/Palestine had been the first major national security agenda item the president put his power and credibility behind, appointing former Senator George Mitchell to be his Envoy in seeking to secure real Middle East peace.

In a compelling but bleak New York Times assessment titled "Seven Lean Years of Peacemaking" by my New America Foundation colleague Daniel Levy, the negative results scream out.  Levy writes:

One thing is clear: The years from 2005 to 2012 have been seven decidedly lean ones for peacemaking and withdrawal and seven gluttonously fat ones for entrenching Israel's occupation and settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In these areas, almost 94,000 new settlers have been added since 2005, some settler outposts have been legalized and thousands of Palestinians have been displaced.

Obama should only get the blame for the 2009-2012 part of this portfolio -- but the failure to get Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on to a credible peace track with Palestinians has enormous strategic consequences for the country.

Dobriansky tells only part of the story as it was in both 2009 and 2010 that President Obama committed substantial portions of his UN General Assembly addresses to the problems of Palestine and Israel.  In 2010, he pointedly criticized the unwillingness of the parties to come together and pushed George Mitchell and others on his team to double down and get a deal done.  Obviously, with the resignations of both Senator Mitchell and Dennis Ross who had been Obama's Middle East wrangler on his National Security Team (both of whom had often worked at cross-purposes), ended Obama's efforts thus far on securing Middle East peace.

These results deserve both to be highlighted and criticized -- so thanks to Ambassador Dobriansky.

That said, would her candidate Mitt Romney do any better?

Yesterday we were given what were perhaps some of the most thoughtful comments yet expressed by Governor Romney on the turmoil in the Middle East and what can be done in response.  While his comments were not Palestine-specific and this may be the first time I have heard Romney address foreign policy and not make a single mention of Israel, his broad survey of the Middle East region and his assessment of the youth cover Palestine. 

Romney makes the sensible point that jobs matter, that economics is a major driver of both hope and desperation.    

Here are Romney's thoughts as captured by The Atlantic's politics channel senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta at the Clinton Global Initiative:

Work has to be at the heart of our efforts to help people build economies that can create jobs, young and old alike. Work builds self-esteem. It transforms minds from fantasy and fanaticism to reality and grounding. Work does not long tolerate corruption nor will it quietly endure the brazen theft by government of the product of hard-working men and women. To foster work and enterprise in the Middle East and other developing countries I will initiate something I will call Prosperity Pacts, working with the private sector the program will identify the barriers to investment and trade and entrepreneurship and entrepreneurialism in developing nations. And, in exchange for removing those barriers and opening their markets to U.S. investment and trade, developing nations will receive U.S. assistance packages focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law, and property rights ....

The aim of a much larger share of our aid must be the promotion of work, and the fostering of free enterprise. Nothing we can do as a nation will change lives and nations more effectively and permanently than sharing the insight that lies at the foundation of America's own economy, and that is that free people pursuing happiness in their own ways, build a strong and prosperous nation.

Whether Romney is right or not, his jobs talk and the notion of "Prosperity Pacts" are a step ahead of the rhetoric that typecasts instability in the Middle East as a function of Islamic culture and fanaticism.  And the fact is that the Obama administration's policy towards places like Egypt and Palestine, Tunisia, and Libya is to try to lay groundwork for investment, aid, and jobs. 

So, Romney and the Obama administration actually are on similar tracks.  But the scale of what is needed in the region is staggering -- and small US programs or bland talk about job creation by the GOP presidential challenger doesn't come near to the level of economic course correction the region needs.

The more disconcerting gap between rhetoric and action is not on Obama's docket, however, but on Romney's.

What it not Mitt Romney who said at a fundraiser regarding Israel-Palestine peace, "this is going to remain an unresolved problem."

As Bill Clinton said during his Democratic National Convention speech, "it takes some brass to criticize the president for something you have done yourself."  In this case, it's out of place to take Obama down a notch on Israel-Palestine when your own candidate has no intention of trying to resolve the geostrategically significant ulcer.

And even more disconcerting were Romney"s comments in Jerusalem about "culture" being the dividing line between the economic performance of Israel vs. Palestine.  As reported by Ashley Parker and Richard A. Oppel Jr., Romney said:

"Culture makes all the difference," Mr. Romney said. "And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things."

He added, "As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States."

Notwithstanding Romney's significant errors on the GDP gap between Israel and Palestine, it's outrageous to assess Palestine's economic potential without considering that all they have done has been done under Occupation, with barriers to travel and commerce embedded throughout their territory which Israel occupies and dominates, often brutally.

It's easy to talk about jobs and "Prosperity Pacts", but tougher to put them into motion in addressing the economic needs of a growing MENA youth bulge that needed a massive number of jobs yesterday.

To make this interesting, I dare Mitt Romney to test his thesis personally in the way that former World Bank President James Wolfensohn did.  Wolfensohn invested his own money in an effort to get Palestinian-grown strawberries to markets in Europe and worked out deals with the Israelis and established a greenhouse project and processing infrastructure at Israel's Karni Crossing.  To make a long and sad story short, even the great James Wolfensohn failed to overcome Israeli arbitrariness in what it allowed and didn't in terms of earnest Palestine commerce with the rest of the world.

Let's see if Mitt Romney can devote a small bit of his fortune to getting a business up and running in Palestine.  Perhaps he could meet with his new employees and hear what they have to do to connect with their families and what humiliations they go through trying to get their kids to school or trying to take products to market.

Perhaps Romney would succeed in ways others in Palestine have not, but until then, it seems that, as Dobriansky framed it, the gap between rhetoric and results on the Romney vision for the region seems insurmountable.

-- Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons