Soon-to-be House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is desperately trying to explain away the promise he made to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last Wednesday.
Cantor huddled with Netanyahu just prior to the prime minister's meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton was expected to reaffirm the American commitment to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and opposition to Israeli settlement expansion. Cantor wanted Netanyahu to know that he had his back.
Cantor's office itself put out a statement bragging about his pledge to Netanyahu:
Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," the readout continued. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other.
For now, forget Cantor's ridiculous assertion that the security of Israel and the United States are "reliant upon the other." No, the United States provides Israel with the security assistance to survive — it is not the other way around.
But lay that aside. It is Cantor's statement of loyalty to Netanyahu that is the shocker. Specifically, it is his promise that he would ensure that Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives "will serve as a check" on U.S. Middle East policy.
Almost immediately, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's bureau chief in Washington, Ron Kampeas, declared that Cantor's statement was "extraordinary." He wrote that he could not "remember an opposition leader telling a foreign leader, in a personal meeting, that he would side, as a policy, with that leader against the President."
Kampeas was clearly shocked, but he was understating the enormity of Cantor's offense. Cantor's pledge of allegiance to a foreign leader would be remarkable, and deeply offensive, even if the foreign country in question were Canada or the United Kingdom, our two closest allies with whom we have few policy differences.
The United States has major policy differences with Israel, and has had them for decades, most notably over settlements, the occupied West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, etc. Israel is also the largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world, which means that the President of the United States has every right to express those differences firmly and clearly.
On the other hand, no American official — by any stretch of the imagination — has the right to tell the government of Israel, or any foreign government, that he stands with the foreign leader against his own president. It is one thing to oppose particular US policies; it is quite another to tell a foreign leader, "I'm with you, not my president."
Of course, Cantor was just being honest. Although he does oppose virtually all of President Obama's policies (he's a Republican and that is what Republicans do), he supports 100% of Israeli policies. And although an extreme partisan domestically, when it comes to Israel, he supports whichever government is in power. He believes in the right to criticize this government, just not that one.
Cantor's mistake was not telling Prime Minister Netanyahu what everyone knows is true anyway, but telling the world what he said.
This is the classic Washington definition of a gaffe (i.e., inadvertently speaking an inconvenient truth).
In this case, the gaffe produced a firestorm.
And this is where I consider the possibility that Cantor simply doesn't understand what he's doing.
After all, he has been an AIPAC cutout since he first was elected to office. He's been to more AIPAC meetings than he can probably count. And he should have figured out by now that the lobby is extremely careful, obsessively careful, to always emphasize loyalty to the United States while simultaneously endorsing Israeli policies that undermine our foreign policy objectives.
AIPAC officials never, ever, say that when push comes to shove their loyalty is with Israel not the United States. In fact, the accusation that this is the case is the charge AIPAC hates most.
But the soon-to-be Majority Leader came right out and said it: Israel, right or wrong.
It took a few days for Cantor to understand how utterly offensive his statement was. (He might have heard from a few Tea Party types who, say what you will about them, tend to take their patriotism seriously.)
So today Cantor explained he was misunderstood. His inconvenient truth, his gaffe, was replaced by a laughable untruth.
This is how the Washington Post's Dana Milbank reports it:
Brad Dayspring, Cantor's press guy, tells me Cantor's promise that the Republican majority would "serve as a check on the administration" was "not in relation to U.S./Israel relations."
Mmmm. So Cantor's pledge to stand with Netanyahu against Obama was "not in relation to US/Israel relations" despite the context of Cantor's statement — just before Netanyahu's meeting with Clinton — and the fact that the person he was talking to was the Prime Minister of Israel.
So, what was Cantor's pledge "in relation to"?
Was it in relation to either repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" or the Bush tax cuts for millionaires? Maybe it was about farm subsidies.
Come on, Eric. Don't make us laugh.
It is eminently clear what you said and what you meant. And this time we will take you at your word.