The Obama campaign and the mainstream media are joined at the hip in an effort to portray Mitt Romney’s remarks in Israel linking culture and prosperity as a gaffe (are you getting sick of this word yet?).

Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat got in on the act by calling Romney’s remarks “racist” because Romney’s words contained an implied criticism of the Palestinians, who are much poorer than the Israelis.

Richard Landes, a medieval historian at Boston University and author of Heaven on Earth, explains why what Romney said was true and important. Landes writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

In making his brief case, Mr. Romney cited two books: Guns, Germs and Steel, by geographer Jared Diamond, and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by economist David Landes (my father). As in other fields of social "science," economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or from natural ones such as resistance to disease and access to primary resources. Prof. Diamond, whose book focuses on societies' natural advantages, last week wrote an op-ed in the New York Times emphasizing both culture and nature and trying to draw Prof. Landes in with him.

But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only the Landes book examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient for economic development. Israel, a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the Ottoman Empire, rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of a certain kind of culture: Even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world.

Americans, Landes writes, tend to view other societies as being like us. We assume that they recognize the importance of voluntary associations, value productive work, and believe in equality before the law. Moreover, we believe in risk-taking and were (until recently) “a culture dedicated to making, not taking, money—a society can make use of whatever primary products a land offers.”

But there are cultures whose favored mode is not voluntary but coerced and zero-sum relations, where the principle of "rule or be ruled" dominates political and economic life. The elites in such cultures hold hard work in contempt, and they distrust intellectual openness and uncontrolled innovation as subversive. They emphasize rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority. Protection rackets rather than law enforcement assure the public order and bleed the economy. Public criticism brings sharp retaliation. Powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making.

Few cultures on the planet better illustrate the latter traits than the Arab world, a fact outlined in painful detail by a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals. As "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" points out, Arab culture intensifies these problems with its attitude of hyper-jealousy and misogyny toward women, which turns out entitled sons and cloistered daughters.

Even the huge influx of petrodollars did not change the basic contours of Arab economies: Rather than fueling economic development that benefited all, it bloated corrupt and opaque elites. …

Landes observes that Palestinians tend to be more prosperous in areas settled by Jews (Tel Aviv, Hebron, Jerusalem) and poorer elsewhere (Gaza, Nablus, and Nazareth). But many Arabs leaders, instead of being able to live with the Jews, adopted the position that, no matter how poor they were, the most important thing was to evict the Israelis.

Sooner rule in hell than share in heaven. These actors have dominated Palestinian political culture, and terrorized Israeli and Palestinian alike, for generations.

Instead of criticizing Erekat and giving leaders who want peace and prosperity a chance, the media has hailed Romney’s remarks as a sign that he can’t negotiate in the middle East. To the contrary, Romney recognizes the root problem. Until that truth is acknowledged, the world is stuck with the meaningless Kabuki theater of the Middle Eastern “peace process.”

But something else needs to be said about Romney’s culture remarks. What Romney said is not only important for dealing with the Middle East. This is a campaign to determine whether we become a society that builds its economy on taking from “millionaires and billionaires” or on economic creation.

Assignment: Contrast the values enshrined in Romney’s remarks about culture with President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech. Do that, and you’ve got the 2012 presidential race in a nutshell.