A top foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney on Wednesday defended statements the Republican presidential candidate made in Israel about the cultural differences between Israelis and Palestinians.
"How has terrorism flourished in certain parts of Palestinian society?" Dan Senor asked during an interview Wednesday with NPR's Audie Cornish on All Things Considered. "That is a question we should be asking about certain leaders and certain individuals within the Palestinian territory who glorify violence, who encourage violence, who celebrate terrorists, who name stadiums and streets and monuments after suicide bombers as opposed to naming streets after successful entrepreneurs."
While in Jerusalem this week, Romney was accused of racism by a top Palestinian official for his statement about Israel's culture and what Romney called a "dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality" compared to that of the Palestinians.
Here's how the Los Angeles Times reported the incident:
"Palestinian spokespeople, asked about the remark, initially by the Associated Press and then by other American reporters, reacted angrily, saying Romney had ignored the impact of Israeli government policy, which for years has favored economic development in Jewish areas, and the continued Israeli occupation of parts of the West Bank, which has disrupted commerce and communications in Palestinian areas."
"'Oh my god, this man needs a lot of education,' said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. 'What he said about the culture is racism.' The 'Israeli occupation' is 'the reason' for the income disparity, Erekat added."
"Israel takes these measures for security purposes," Senor told NPR on Wednesday. "I'm not suggesting that the blame lies with Palestinian society writ large, no one is suggesting that. What we are simply saying though is that when you have bad actors within your society who are conducting terrorist attacks against a sovereign nation ... [a] sovereign nation does take measures to defend themselves, which is what the Israelis have done over the years. And there's no question that it has had detrimental economic impact on Palestinian society."
Senor, who advises Romney on foreign policy, dismissed the idea that Romney's comments would prevent him from working with Palestinian leaders if elected president. He pointed to a meeting Romney had with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during his weeklong foreign trip.
"There are plenty of Palestinian leaders who are taking risks and want to do the right thing, and we should be trying to strengthen them rather than apologize for their adversaries," said Senor.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Mitt Romney hits the domestic campaign trail again tomorrow, after a tumultuous few days overseas. He returned late yesterday from a weeklong foreign trip - with stops in Great Britain, Israel and Poland. Now, this sort of foreign tour has become a rite of passage for presidential contenders with thin foreign policy credentials. In July 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama also visited Great Britain and Israel as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, France and Germany.
On this week's trip, Romney made more headlines with his missteps than with bold new policy pronouncements. We're going to look back on the trip with one of the candidate's senior foreign policy advisers, Dan Senor. We spoke earlier today, and I began by asking him about a controversial comment Governor Romney made at a fundraiser in Israel. He said that culture had played an important role in Israel's economic success. Palestinian critics took issue with Romney's comment because it appeared to ignore the roadblocks and trade restrictions that Israel, for its security, has imposed on them.
DAN SENOR: He was simply saying that there's no question that there are certain choices that Israeli society has made over the years - protecting freedom of speech, protecting free enterprise, celebrating entrepreneurialism. And entrepreneurs have contributed to economic success. Now, you asked me about the trade restrictions. And, I assume, also implicit in that are the roadblocks in the Palestinian territories. Those are there, primarily, to prevent terrorists from getting from the Palestinian territories into Israel.
CORNISH: So you're talking about this as a Palestinian choice, instead of an Israeli choice, to impose these security restrictions?
SENOR: Well, Israel is - takes these measures for security purposes. Now, I'm not suggesting that the blame lies with Palestinian society writ large. No one is suggesting that. What we are simply saying, though, is that when you have bad actors within your society who are conducting terrorist attacks against a sovereign nation, the sovereign nation does take measures to defend themselves, which is what the Israelis have done over the years. And there is no question that it has had detrimental economic impact on Palestinian society.
CORNISH: So where is the campaign going with this, given the fact that this is - obviously, a lot of sensitivities in this area of the world. At some point, if there is to be a President Mitt Romney, he would have to deal with these very same actors, who very much were incensed by these comments.
SENOR: Well, I think that's a slight overstatement.
CORNISH: Well, I just want to say - I mean, an aide to the Palestinian president said they were racist comments. I mean, I don't - I'm not putting words in his mouth there.
SENOR: And they are others, like Salam Fayyad, who is the prime minister, who met with Mitt Romney on Sunday in Israel - who has met with Mitt Romney three times over the last few years; they have a relationship - he's a real moderate force within the Palestinian Authority. So our view, simply, is there are plenty of Palestinian leaders who are taking risks, and we should be trying to strengthen them rather than apologize for their adversaries.
CORNISH: I want to move on to the subject of Iran. There seems to be some confusion about the governor's message there. Now, you had told reporters - and correct me if this quote is wrong - if Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capability, the governor would respect that decision.
And then you went back and said: Romney believes we should employ any and all measure to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is his fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so.
So if he is president, and knows beforehand that Israel's planning a strike on Iran, what would Mr. Romney do?
SENOR: Well, look, I think that's a very hypothetical question because I think that if Mitt Romney's president, we won't be in that situation where Israel is sitting there in a desperate situation, with Iran on the cusp...
CORNISH: But you'll be in a situation where Iran will still be a difficult player on the world stage.
SENOR: I do not think we'll be in a situation where Iran is on the cusp of developing a nuclear capability; and Israel is sitting there, scratching their heads, wondering if America will stand by them, or if America will be totally focused on preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. So it's hard to - I don't think - that's a hypothetical that's difficult to address.
But I will tell you what we meant in our - what the governor meant in his message in Jerusalem on Sunday; which is that Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable, and that every option should be pursued - short of military action - should be pursued to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. But they also need to believe that the threat of military action is credible. And...
CORNISH: And how is this different from President Obama's point of view, then, where we've heard similar things? Diplomacy and sanctions first; military strike as a last resort; support of Israel.
SENOR: Three key distinctions. One, President Obama has not said that a nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable. He's been focused on Iran getting a nuclear bomb. And what we are saying is just the program, the capability - even before you get to weaponization - is unacceptable. Two, Governor Romney is for zero enrichment of uranium; if there's to be a deal with the Iranians, zero enrichment. The administration is not for that. The administration, along with the P5-plus-1, has been engaged in negotiations with the Iranians that would allow some enrichment of uranium.
But the other difference, I would say, is that for the threat of military action to be credible - again, Governor Romney does not support using military action; he's not advocating for military action. This is a very important point. He's simply saying that the Iranians have to believe - the leaders in Tehran have to believe that we are serious; that the military option is on the table. And what the Obama administration has done, over the last couple of years, is gone out of its way to project - in numerous ways that I could cite - to project to Iran, Israel and the world, that the thing they are most terrified of is military action against Iran, be it from the U.S. or Israel.
CORNISH: Could that be because Pentagon officials - Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, Leon Panetta - have urged Israel not to attack Iran, and they say that such an attack could endanger U.S. troops in the region, U.S. interests? Essentially, the president would be listening to Pentagon civilian and uniformed leaders. Would Governor Romney do the same, if that's their assessment?
SENOR: There's two issues here, that I should unpackage. One, he would absolutely take the counsel of civilian officials and uniformed officers. Two, our complaint is with the president, and his lieutenants, broadcasting what you just said to the world. It is one thing to convey behind closed doors to the Israelis, that you are uneasy with military action coming from Israel. It's quite another to broadcast it to the world. It winds up sending a bad signal to Israel and America's enemies because it projects distance between us and our allies. And I think America's adversaries, and the adversaries of our allies, capitalize on any perceived distance that we have.
CORNISH: Now, Obama is still scoring very well in the polls, when it comes to foreign policy. And did this trip actually do the job of showing Mitt Romney as a statesman?
SENOR: Mitt Romney went overseas to spend time with some of the leaders of America's most important allies - to lock arms with them; to send a message that America may have disagreements on public policy issues with key allies, but his approach is not to demonize or criticize our friends in those situations over disagreements on public policy, and that we should keep those discussions behind closed doors. And he went abroad to learn a lot, to listen a lot, to get briefings on some complicated issues. And I think in that sense, the trip was a remarkable success.
CORNISH: Dan Senor, senior foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney, thank you so much for talking with us.
SENOR: Happy to do it. Pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.