CBSN

Romney: I "did not speak about" Palestinian culture

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Warsaw Library in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Romney wraps up overseas trip with speech in Poland
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Warsaw Library in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Updated: 11:37 a.m. ET

(CBS News) Under fire from Palestinian leaders for recent comments suggesting that Israel's economic success is borne out of its "culture," Mitt Romney on Tuesday attempted to clarify his remarks, telling Fox News that he had not talked about "the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy."

"I'm not speaking about it, did not speak about the Palestinian culture," Romney told Fox's Carl Cameron, in an interview taped before the candidate's departure from Poland. "That's an interesting topic that perhaps could deserve scholarly analysis but I actually didn't address that. I certainly don't intend to address that during my campaign. Instead I will point out that the choices a society makes have a profound impact on the economy and the vitality of that society."

At a fundraiser in Israel on Monday, Romney, speaking to Jewish-American donors, compared Israel's economy to that of the Palestinians, noting a "dramatically stark difference in economic vitality."

(Romney delivers speech in Warsaw, Poland on Tuesday.)

"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, 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," he said.

He drew parallels between other neighboring countries with such economic disparities, such as Chile and Ecuador and Mexico and the United States, and noted his interest, as a former businessman, in determining the source of those gaps. He also referred to the book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations," which concludes that culture plays key role in success of nations.

"Culture makes all the difference," Romney told donors on Monday. "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."

Romney did not specifically mention Palestinian culture in his remarks, but the comparison between the Israeli and Palestinian economies, and his comments about culture, seem to suggest an implicit judgment.

Romney was swiftly upbraided for the comments by Palestinian leaders, including Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who told the Associated Press the remarks were racist, and failed to note the potential impact that Israel's occupation of the West Bank have had on the nation's economy. Others have also pointed out that Israel has strict trade restrictions on Palestine, which Romney did not mention.

"It is a racist statement and this man doesn't realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation," Erekat told the AP. "It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people."

(Audio of the Romney aide's altercation with the press.)

The controversy marks just one in a series of gaffes that have marked the Republican candidate's brief trip abroad. Most recently, Romney's traveling press secretary was forced to apologize after telling reporters to "shove it"and "kiss my a**" during a tense exchange in Poland.

Romney dismissed the notion that his trip to Europe had been characterized by missteps, suggesting the press is focusing on the incidents in an attempt to distract voters from the real issues.

"And I realize that there will be some in the fourth estate or whichever estate who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy to geopolitics to the threat of war to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today to a nuclearization of Iran," Romney told Cameron. "They'll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, top Romney strategist Stu Stevens characterized the trip as a "great success" and argued American voters aren't concerned about gaffes.

"I think people understand that big elections are about big things. And I think that one thing we've learned about this race is only that which is important matters," he said. "This is not a race that has been affected by small things at all. I think it means absolutely nothing to the people at home because it has no relevance to their life. It doesn't matter."