It is being argued in some circles that a contributing factor in the repudiation of Congressman Eric Cantor by Virginia voters was his close affiliation with the Israel Lobby and with things Israeli in general, to include his support of wars in the Middle East that would serve Tel Aviv’s agenda. Some are even suggesting that his own Jewishness made him uncongenial to local voters. I do not buy either argument. Cantor was elected to Congress previously by large margins in seven general elections, suggesting that his religion or ethnicity was not an issue. And his ties to Israel would not necessarily offend a largely religiously conservative party base, which would most likely be comfortable or even enthusiastic over the connection.
Cantor, oddly described by the New York Times as a “moderate,” did not lose because he was outflanked by the tea party and was not far right enough. He was already far right on nearly every relevant issue. He lost because he was a poster child for the faux social agenda combined with crony capitalism and big money interests that together have been defined as “movement conservatism.”
The aloof Cantor also suffered from treating his constituency as largely irrelevant to his grander ambitions, which permitted his opponent David Brat to focus on his attachment to Washington’s “ruling class” and immigration as the major campaign issues. Regarding immigration Cantor has opportunistically and characteristically been on both sides of the argument, reflecting his obeisance to business interests on one hand and his desire to appear truly conservative on the other. The immigration issue itself is a bit of a muddle as most Americans support showing compassion to many of the children born in the US who are caught up in the legal process while also staunchly opposing any general amnesty. Immigration has actually become a codeword for the unwelcome cultural and workforce changes taking place in much of America, in which the working and middle classes have seen their relevance and status decline together with their actual ability to make ends meet. Cantor was seen as increasingly out of touch on such core issues, on the side of the “banksters” and big money corporate interests, not of the people who voted him into office.
But be that as it may it is nevertheless also true that Eric Cantor was and is at variance with the growing discomfort on the part of the public with America’s never ending series of wars. Cantor is a pure neoconservative in his foreign policy views, favoring the military option against Iran and supporting bombing Syria, strengthening sanctions against Tehran, condemning the Palestinians, and consistently deferring to Israel on its security needs. He famously had a private meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010 shortly before becoming House Majority Leader in which he took the side of the Israeli leader against the President of the United States. President Barack Obama at that time was putting pressure on Israel to restrain its development of new settlements. Cantor assured Netanyahu that the Republican majority in congress would serve as “a check on the administration.” This meant that he was putting unconditional support of a foreign nation ahead of his own country’s interests, a position that likely empowered Netanyahu to defy Obama, but apart from some angry commentary coming from the usual critics of the Israel relationship, there was no protest from the GOP and almost nothing from the Democrats.
Cantor might just have been grandstanding to the benefit of what he clearly perceived as an important constituency in the US, but there might have been more to his outreach to the Israeli premier. There has been speculation that Netanyahu was also simultaneously networking with Israel Firster Senator Charles Schumer at the time and might well have been envisioning a perfect sweep to control Congress with Cantor in line to become Speaker of the House and Schumer poised to replace Harry Reid as Senate Majority leader.
Cantor exploited his unique access as the only Jewish Republican congressman to break the Democratic Party’s near monopolistic access to political contributions coming from Jewish billionaires. He became a formidable fund raiser, cultivating with considerable success casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who, like Cantor, was heavily focused on insuring that Israel continue to enjoy a highly beneficial “special relationship” with Washington. Cantor also worked to raise Jewish money for Republican candidates nationwide. His loss as a focal point for Jewish donors to the GOP is significant, with Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition hyperbolizing it as “one of those incredible, evil twists of fate that just changed the potential course of history.” It remains to be seen whether Adelson and others will continue to invest in GOP candidates without the mediation of Cantor.
Eric Cantor was also instrumental in binding Republican congressmen to the cause of Israel in other ways than money. He has led a number of congressional delegations to Israel to obtain the Israeli viewpoint on the Middle East. On one such excursion in August 2009, during the first two weeks of the House of Representatives recess, fully 13% of the US Congress, together with their spouses, traveled to Israel paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, which is a non-profit foundation that is part of AIPAC. Cantor headed the group of 25 Republicans, which he prepped by writing an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on August 3rd. He wrote that “Israel is not only a democratic ally and our only true friend in the Middle East; it is also a vital pillar of US national security strategy…Israel has a right to accommodate the natural growth of its population…excessive handwringing over natural growth is a diversion from the main threat in the Middle East: Iran.”
Cantor’s itinerary included a visit to the illegal West Bank settlement of Alfei Menashe to express solidarity with the heroic and widely misunderstood Israeli settlers, expressing his concern about the “…focus being placed on settlements and settlement growth when the real threat is the existential threat that Israel faces from Iran and the impending nuclearization of Iran.” Also during that same trip when two Arab families were evicted from their homes in Jerusalem, resulting in a worldwide protest that included criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Cantor discovered another way to look at the situation. He complained about Clinton, “I’m very troubled by that, because I don’t think we in America would want another country telling us how to implement and execute our laws.” During a subsequent August 2013 trip that included 28 congressmen Cantor declared that for the GOP Israel’s security is “paramount.”
Cantor also always made sure that he played the Israel card when traveling on congressional junkets. In January while on his way to Davos he stopped off in Auschwitz to celebrate Holocaust Remembrance Day and in April he urged the Chinese to permit more liberal access to synagogues in China. The list of bills that he has sponsored or co-sponsored is heavily weighted in favor of legislation relating to Israel or to Jewish issues. He has supported legislation giving Holocaust survivors extra Medicare benefits that other needy Americans do not receive, to include in home nursing services and the creation of a Special Envoy for US Holocaust Survivor Services.
Eric Cantor also supported all Israeli policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. In January 2009, when Israel was pounding Gaza to rubble and killing over a thousand civilians, he co-wrote an op-ed entitled “A Defensive War,” which began with “During this difficult war in the Gaza Strip, we stand with Israel.” Why? Because “Instead of building roads, bridges, schools and industry, Hamas and other terrorists wasted millions turning Gaza into an armory.” Cantor, clearly noticing a militarization of the Gaza strip that no else quite picked up on, also affirmed that Israel occupied the moral high ground in the conflict, “While Israel targets military combatants, Hamas aims to kill as many civilians as possible.”
In May 2009 Cantor co-signed a letter sent to his colleagues in congress. He wrote that Washington must be “both a trusted mediator and a devoted friend to Israel” because “Israel will be taking the greatest risks in any peace agreement.” AIPAC couldn’t have put it better. In fact, AIPAC wrote the missive since Cantor and his partner in crime Democrat Steny Hoyer apparently needed a little help to get the message just right. The actual source of the letter was revealed when the document was circulated with the file name “AIPAC Letter Hoyer Cantor May 2009.pdf,” which the intrepid congressional duo had failed to change before sending out.
Congressmen like Cantor who truly believe that Israel’s interests are of paramount importance and that the United States ought to go to war on its behalf should perhaps find another line of work. Fortunately the voters of Virginia have spoken and Eric Cantor will be doing exactly that. But one candidate being promoted to replace Cantor as Majority Leader, Raul Labrador of Idaho, would not offer much change. Labrador, a devout Mormon, wrote in a statement to AIPAC that he supports “Israel’s security fence, incursions similar to Operation Cast Lead, and other anti-terrorism methods necessary for thwarting terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.” Congressmen “must make the case for Israel on Capitol Hill, in town hall meetings, at our churches and synagogues, in our local media and wherever else people will listen.”
Likewise Cantor’s probable successor representing Virginia’s 7th Congressional District David Brat also may not differ from him very much on most substantive issues and one has to suspect that he has already been approached by AIPAC to get him on board. As Brat is reported to be a fundamentalist inclined Christian he might be predisposed to see the Mideast in Israeli terms anyway, but if he is an honest man before succumbing to the inevitable corruption in congress he might well draw the line at engaging with the Sheldon Adelsons prowling around the GOP. We can only hope.