(updated below - Update II [Reply to David Bernstein])
Soon-to-be GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor met on Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- the same day when the actual U.S. Secretary of State met with Netanyahu -- and vowed that he and his GOP colleagues would protect and defend Israeli interests against his own Government. According to a statement proudly issued by Cantor's own office:
Regarding the midterms, Cantor may have given Netanyahu some reason to stand firm against the American administration.
"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."
Leave aside the absurdity of believing that Israel needs to be protected from the extremely deferential and devoted Obama administration. So extraordinary is Cantor's pledge that even the Jewish Telegraph Agency's Ron Kampeas -- himself a reflexive American defender of most things Israel -- was astonished, and wrote:
I can't 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. Certainly, in statements on one specific issue or another -- building in Jerusalem, or somesuch -- lawmakers have taken the sides of other nations. But to have-a-face to face and say, in general, we will take your side against the White House -- that sounds to me extraordinary.
As Kampeas notes, Cantor's office quickly disputed his understanding, but this is hardly the first time Cantor has violated supposedly sacred political conventions in order to side with Israel over his own country. Last August, Cantor led a GOP delegation to Israel and while in Jerusalem -- which happens to be "foreign soil" -- he condemned his own President and American policy for opposing the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Criticizing America while on Dreaded Foreign Soil is supposed to be one of the most extreme taboos in American politics: Al Gore was bitterly denounced as a borderline-traitor for a 2006 speech in Saudi Arabia criticizing American foreign policy, and Gore at the time was merely a private citizen, not a leading political official. But American political figures like Cantor feel free to do exactly that -- criticize America on foreign soil -- when it comes to Israel; recall the same thing being done by by Mike Huckabee.
That's because, in general, all the rules change -- are completely reversed -- when it comes to Israel. As Cantor's behavior demonstrates, the rules that apply to "foreign countries" are inapplicable to Israel because in mainstream American politics, Israel is not considered and therefore is not treated as a "foreign country" at all. Many Israel devotees actually tried to expand the "no-criticizing-the U.S.-on-foreign-soil" rule by suggesting there was something wrong with Obama's criticism of Israel while in Indonesia; apparently, it's fine for American officials to criticize the U.S. while in Israel, but not for the U.S. President to criticize Israel while on foreign soil. And for the past two years, leading Democrats who would never dare publicly criticize Obama for anything have bitterly and publicly denounced him for the crime of opposing Israeli policy. And, of course, there is far greater unity in the U.S. Congress for Israeli wars than for America's own wars; that's just a fact.
Last night on Twitter, I wrote: "Imagine if a leading Democratic Congressman told a leader of a foreign country he'd side with them against the GOP US President" and "Imagine John Kerry, 2006, to French President Jacques Chirac: 'I'll safeguard French interests against President Bush'." In reply, The Washington Examiner's David Freddoso wrote: "No need to imagine. It happened in 02." He's presumably referring to Rep. Jim McDermott's trip to Iraq to oppose America's imminent attack on that country. That's hardly comparable -- McDermott wasn't in the leadership of his party and he was opposing that war out of allegiance to the U.S., not to Iraq -- but even so, it created a major media backlash in which McDermott was routinely denounced as a traitor and to this day is mocked as "Baghdad Jim." Needless to say, Cantor's actions will spawn nothing comparable. That's the point.
What makes Cantor's behavior all the more remarkable is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which the Obama administration is ostensibly attempting to resolve is, as Gen. David Petraeus himself pointed out, a direct threat to U.S. interests and security. But no matter; those concerns are plainly not Cantor's priority.
One other revealing and fascinating aspect to all of this. The two co-Chairmen of Obama's Deficit Commission, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, last week unveiled a plan that would entail drastic cuts in most areas of American life, including Social Security and Medicare. Whatever else is true, American citizens are going to experience severe cut-backs in all sorts of benefits and economic security. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to shovel billions of dollars every year to Israel -- a country which, unlike the U.S., enjoys a booming economy and universal health care coverage. The Bowles/Simpson proposal would not cut any of that, but it at least calls for a reduction in the rate of growth in foreign aid, which would encompass the numerous foreign countries to which the U.S. transfers such money, with Israel leading the list and its neighbor Egypt in second place (which buys Egyptian stability and peace with Israel).
Anticipating that the extreme austerity measures which his party is demanding might sweep up foreign aid -- and therefore threaten the billions of dollars every year in American taxpayer money transferred to Israel -- Cantor last month proposed that money to Israel not be classifed any longer as "foreign aid" -- in order to shield it from all cuts. In other words, Cantor wants American citizens to sacrifice in the extreme, to lose all sorts of benefits and security in the name of austerity, but wants to shield Israel -- with a higher standard of living -- from those cuts. Put another way, Americans should give up Social Security and Medicare benefits so that they can continue to transfer billions of dollars every year to Israel, a foreign country which offers far more of a safety net to its own citizens. But don't you dare accuse Eric Cantor of haboring allegiance to Israel and subordinating U.S. interests to this foreign country. That would be extremely wrong of you to insinuate.
UPDATE: Adam Serwer recalls that in 2007, Nancy Pelosi visited Syria -- she didn't pledge to side with them against her own country, just visited them -- and Eric Cantor himself was one of the many Republicans accusing her of likely having committed a crime. Cantor wrote: "Several leading legal authorities have made the case that [Pelosi's] recent diplomatic overtures ran afoul of the Logan Act, which makes it a felony for any American 'without authority of the United States' to communicate with a foreign government to influence that government's behavior on any disputes with the United States."
As Serwer writes: "Based on Cantor's own standard, he's just committed a felony." For Cantor, the operative term distinguishing his conduct from Pelosi's is presumably "foreign government," which -- in Cantor's mind -- applies to those with whom Pelosi met but not to those with whom Cantor met. Steve Benen correctly argues that "this is a legitimate scandal worthy of far more attention"; the fact that it won't receive any real attention tells you all you need to know. Had Cantor done this with any foreign nation other than Israel, this would easily be the leading political controversy of the week.