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Clinton and Palestinian Culture: Not So Fast

Over at the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta contrasts Mitt Romney’s opinion of Palestinian “culture” (or, rather, how the media interpreted his comments) with that of Bill Clinton. With a hat-tip to National Journal’s Matthew Cooper, who dug up the quote, Franke-Ruta publishes a comment Clinton made in a speech last year in Riyadh that would seem to put him at stark odds with Romney on their evaluations of Palestinian culture.

When I read the quote, I immediately recognized it: I once heard Clinton deliver the same line–only it was to a Jewish audience, and it was meant to make the opposite point he was making to the Saudis, a point that comports much more with what Romney said. (Classic Clinton there, by the way.) First, what Franke-Ruta quotes, via the Arab News:

He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have done a remarkable job in the West Bank. “It is just an example of what would happen for the Palestinian people if they are given a chance to govern,” Clinton said. “Palestinians are a hard-working and an incredible community. They have done remarkably well outside their country. I have never met a poor Palestinian in the United States; every Palestinian I know is a college professor or a doctor.”

The problem in Israel, he said, is what happens in multiparty democracies around the world. “If you take a poll today, two-thirds of Israelis will support peace and a peace agreement,” Clinton said. “However, it is hard to get an Israeli Parliament that reflects the people’s views on this one issue. But we all have to keep pushing.”

This was a clever rhetorical trick here. Clinton doesn’t say the problem is in Israel, he just switches immediately to the problem in Israel, leaving the impression this is Israel’s fault without explicitly saying so. (Also, his comment about Israelis being unable to elect a Knesset that shares the popular view on the peace process is nonsense; the Israelis have such a government now.)

That line about rich Palestinians in America made it easy to find my own account of Clinton’s speech to the American Jewish World Service in 2007. There, he made the same remark about all the Palestinian professors he knows, but then Clinton expressed his frustration that the Palestinians in Gaza possess some of the most beautiful beaches he’s ever seen, beaches that could be tourism cash cows, if only they could get their act together. He also noted that the Palestinians chose to destroy much of the infrastructure Israel left behind after the 2005 disengagement, rather than use it and build on it as free capital.

Their obsession with violence and warfare, he noted–not just against Israel but against each other as well–was destroying their development. Then he said this: “Those of us who are in a position to know better, and have the circumstantial freedom to do better, have a very real obligation to act on what we know.”

Now that is quite the condescending statement. Those of us who know better than the Palestinians–who have the resources and intelligence but, according to Clinton, not the cultural drive to prioritize economic development over retaliatory conflict–have a responsibility to take our values global to help others.

Clinton’s speech at that AJWS event, by the way, was flawless and universally well-received. Not a single objection during or after, as far as I can remember, was raised about the condescending manner in which Clinton spoke about Palestinian culture or the fact that he clearly laid the blame at the Palestinians’ own feet. Perhaps that’s because he was out of office. Or perhaps it’s because hypocrisy is the lifeblood of manufactured outrage, and the media’s response to Romney’s remarks contain a whole lot of both.

UPDATE: Turns out my old article on the event for a now-defunct Jewish newspaper was somehow still online. I’ve added the link to the story.



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