WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dismissed the prospects for an independent Palestinian state coexisting with Israel — a decades-old bipartisan U.S. goal — in a secretly recorded meeting last spring with campaign donors.
“I’m torn by two perspectives in this regard. One is the one which I’ve had for some time, which is that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish,” he told attendees at a May fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., according to a video of the event obtained by Mother Jones magazine that was released Tuesday.
“And I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues and I say, ‘There’s just no way.’”
Instead of a two-state solution in which Israel and an independent Palestinian state coexist with shared borders, Romney seemed to suggest in the session a policy of delay.
“So what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can,” Romney told attendees at the $50,000-per-person event. “You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem … and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”
Romney has since outlined a different approach in public comments.
“I believe in a two-state solution, which suggests there will be two states, including a Jewish state,” Romney told the Israeli publication Haaretz in July during his trip to the United Kingdom, Israel and Poland.
“I respect Israel’s right to remain a Jewish state. The question is not whether the people of the region believe that there should be a Palestinian state. The question is if they believe there should be an Israeli state, a Jewish state.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that Romney’s May remarks reflected “the opposite of leadership,” and Carney called the two-state solution a “basic tenant” of Republican and Democratic presidents including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“Ultimately, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, a negotiated peace that provides security for Israel and a state for the Palestinians, is in the interests of the Israelis and the Palestinians, and in the interests of the United States of America,” Carney said.
The brouhaha was another distraction for the Romney campaign, another day when his economic message — the cornerstone of his bid to unseat Obama — got less attention than a fresh controversy.
In the past week, Romney has had to explain criticism of Obama’s Middle East policies at a moment of crisis in Egypt and Libya, as well as his taped remarks from the May video that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as “victims” dependent on government support.
On the stump, Romney has accused Obama of exercising hands-off leadership in the Middle East. He has charged the president with ignoring Israel’s pleas to address a looming nuclear threat from Iran and mishandling the aftermath of last year’s Arab Spring protests, which led to the ousters of oppressive regimes in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.
Romney escalated his criticism after a violent protest at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“The Middle East needs American leadership, and I intend to be a president that provides the leadership that America expects and will keep us admired throughout the world,” he said last week at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Va.
Romney’s recent controversies don’t appear to have caused much political damage, though there are some signs that they could.
“I wouldn’t expect much to show up for a while. If it has an effect, it would be a cumulative thing,” said Jennifer Duffy, political analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
So far, though, Romney has been doing better since he broke with the long-standing tradition of not criticizing a White House incumbent during a time of crisis, questioning the president’s Middle East policies.
A Gallup daily tracking poll released Tuesday found Obama ahead of Romney by 47 percent to 46 percent, suggesting that the race is back to the virtual tie it’s seen for months. The president had opened up a 7-percentage-point lead a week ago.
“Everyone already seems to know who they’re for,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute.
The race has consistently been a battle for the few undecided voters, and they’re hard to characterize or even identify. Brown finds that they’re not that interested in politics and are reluctant to vote. Other polls have found that younger voters, who are less likely to have allegiances to political parties, are disproportionately undecided.
One danger sign for Romney: The attacks on the U.S. embassies in the Middle East were by far the most closely followed news story of the year, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
Forty-eight percent of those surveyed from Thursday through Sunday disapproved of Romney’s comments, while 26 percent approved. Notably disapproving were 18- to 29-year-old voters — 15 percent of them approved — and independents, 23 percent of whom approved. Romney needs both groups badly to win.