Diplomacy: 'Settlement issue distracts from Iran'

On eve of visit, Minority whip Eric Cantor tells the 'Post' about the current status of Israel-US ties.

eric cantor (photo credit: Courtesy: United States Congress)
eric cantor
(photo credit: Courtesy: United States Congress)
If you thought this week saw a big influx of visiting US government officials - and indeed it did, with visits from US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and NSC Middle East adviser Dennis Ross - then hold your socks. Over the next two weeks, some 60 US congressmen, nearly 15 percent of the 435-member House of Representatives, will be gracing our shores, most of them freshman representatives, all of them on trips sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The first group, the Republican delegation - arriving Monday for a week - will be headed by Eric Cantor of Virginia, the sole Jewish Republican in the House. Besides that distinction, Cantor is also the minority whip, which makes him the No. 2 Republican in the House, behind Minority Leader John Boehner. A week later, the Democratic delegation will come to town, headed by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Cantor, 46, is a name that appeared on the US national radar screen about this time last year, when he was part of Republican presidential candidate John McCain's "Veep Sweepstakes," one of the names being considered as a possible running mate. Characterized in a Time magazine profile earlier this year as "the Newt Gingrich of his generation," and as "one of the few rising stars in a party struggling to reinvent itself," his name is regularly floated as a possible GOP candidate in the 2012 presidential race. During their week-long stay here, Cantor and his delegation will be meeting the country's top leadership, including President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and opposition head Tzipi Livni. They will also be going to Ramallah to talk to top Palestinian Authority officials, including Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Before leaving the US, Cantor spoke by phone Wednesday with The Jerusalem Post about settlements, President Barack Obama, American Jews, Iran, Syria and the current status of Israel-US ties. What follows are excerpts from that conversation. You were quoted in November as saying that a strong US-Israel relationship was a top priority for you, and that you would be outspoken if US President Barack Obama "did anything to harm those ties." Has he? I'm very concerned about some of the reports indicating some disagreement and pressure being put on Israel regarding construction in the settlement areas, as well as Jerusalem in particular. I feel that any kind of emphasis on the issue of natural growth in the settlements is a distraction from the real urgent crisis in the region, which is the nuclearization of Iran. Some maintain Obama is driving so hard on the settlement issue because he feels there is little support for them in Congress or in the American Jewish community. Is that a proper reading? I think that is an inaccurate portrayal of where Congress is and where the American people are. I think the American people are squarely behind Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist as a Jewish state. As Congress continues to focus, it is of primary importance in my mind that we place our solidarity with the people of Israel first. I think it is misplaced for us to sit here and suggest that the issue of settlements needs to take priority over the primary concern in the region, which is the threat by Iran. That is not where this Congress is and not where the American people are. So are you saying there is support on the Hill for natural growth in the settlements? I think that the whole issue of the status of the settlement blocks is something to be resolved in future agreements; it is not something we should begin pressuring Israel on now, when there really have not been adequate steps taken by the Arab states and the Palestinians. Our system of democracy here is very much dictated by where the American people are. And in public opinion polls, one after the other, you continue to see strong support for the US-Israel relationship. You see strong support for the focus of our foreign policy to be directed toward trying to stop the nuclearization of Iran; support that Israel must exist as a Jewish state; and [support for the idea] that a policy that puts pressure on Israel, before evidence that Arab states will take the steps necessary to recognize Israel's right to exist, is not what we should be doing. Has Obama been unilateral in his pressure on Israel? Because when you talk to Obama's people, they say they are applying pressure on the Arabs as well, but that we just don't see it. What we are seeing is a disproportionate discussion about the natural growth in settlements, when that is supposed to be an issue decided later in any overall peace agreement. The fundamental issues should be the recognition, or at least the affirmation, of Israel's historical legitimacy. That should be the focus. We are not going to be able to achieve peace, or foster an environment to achieve peace, unless you have the Palestinians and the Arab states affirming Israel's historic legitimacy. How about Jerusalem? Is there support on the Hill for Israel's construction in east Jerusalem? Yes, I would say so. I certainly am a strong advocate for a united Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish state and we should continue to pursue the policy of a united Jerusalem. Did the administration err in taking Israel to the carpet over its plans to build 20 apartments at the Shepherd's Hotel site in east Jerusalem? I think to most Americans, and to most members of Congress, it is anathema that we would suggest that Israel does not have the right, and Israelis do not have the right, to live in east Jerusalem. I mean we would never suggest that Jews don't have the right to live wherever they desire in the world, and that's why I think it is very, very concerning when there is discussion about Jews not being able to live in east Jerusalem. Let's turn to the Bush letter, and whether there were agreements on settlement construction with the Bush administration. Is this letter still applicable, even though there is a new administration? I would think yes; this is a country of laws, a country that abides by its commitments. I think the Bush letter clearly demonstrated realities on the ground and the importance that American foreign policy places on Israel's right to secure its population. And the realities on the ground are such that the settlements are now, and should be, part of Israel, in terms of those discussed in the letter. Obviously there are those [settlements] very much in conflict with that letter. But certainly as far as the [large settlement] blocks are concerned, and the ability for Israel, and Jews of Israel to live in these, I don't think there is a question as far as American policy is concerned. Nor should there be. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there were no informal agreements with Israel on settlement construction. [Former deputy national security adviser] Elliott Abrams said there were. Why is Abrams the only guy coming out on this? I can't answer that question. I don't know why Elliott came out. Obviously he was there; he was very involved in orchestrating the discussion surrounding that letter. I would say this: I support the thrust of the Bush letter. I think the majority of the members of Congress support the thrust of the Bush letter. And again, looking at the big picture here, the priority and focus of our foreign policy should be the impending nuclearization of Iran. Is Obama leaning too heavily on Israel? The continued focus on telling Israel what to do, without seemingly requiring steps to be taken on the part of Palestinians and the Arab states, is very troubling to me. Do you think Jews who support Israel and voted for Obama made a mistake? I don't think there is any question there is a growing concern in the American Jewish community regarding what is reported to be the voices coming out of the Obama administration. Could this be a factor in next year's election? Do you envision some Jews gravitating to the GOP because of this? The American Jewish community is not unlike the larger American population. We are very affected by the economic situation, and obviously in America today the economy is the first priority as far as the electorate is concerned. But how about the Jews, do you think because of Obama's stance on Israel they might say they are going to vote Republican in the next election? We are a long way off from the election; I wouldn't want to even delve into that. But I can say this: The strength of the US-Israel relationship, the survival of Israel as a Jewish state, its legitimacy in the eyes of thee world, is obviously of the utmost concern to many in the American Jewish community. Has Israel made any effort of outreach to you or any other Republicans? The new ambassador has visited me over the last week. He is obviously new here in Washington and in that capacity is making the rounds on both sides of the aisle. Is there any link between Obama's domestic difficulties, the difficulties getting support for his health care plan for example, and what seems to be here a bit of a softening in recent days of the tone toward Israel? I think, looking form outside into the administration, there is always an awareness of the deep-rooted support for Israel that is present in the US population. I think there have been many of us who have been outspoken about reported pressure being focused on the Netanyahu administration and the Israeli government. So I would have to think that would factor in at some point into the administration's tone and demeanor in its discussions with Israel. Much has been made here about the J Street phenomenon, and how Obama has seemed to enlist that organization and say, "Look these are also voices in the Jewish community; it is not a monolithic community; they present an opinion, and that is one that I reflect." J Street is clearly outside the mainstream of the American Jewish community. Absolutely. Equally, there is not a monolithic position in any community, much less the American Jewish community, but I would definitely say that J Street is outside the mainstream of the America Jewish community in terms of its positions. Then why is its profile so high? I think obviously there are a lot of folks involved with J Street who are very supportive of the White House. Is there daylight between Israel and the US on Iran? There was speculation here that one of the reasons Gates was here this week was to rein Israel in on Iran. Are we on the same page, or are there big differences? I'm hopeful we are on the same page. I know the vice president has made some comments that have indicated that he feels we should not dictate to Israel what it should do. I definitely support that statement that it is not US policy to dictate to our democratic ally what it can and cannot do to defend itself, especially against an existential threat being posed by a country in the region. So I'm continuing to work with my colleagues on the Hill to make sure that we do not have any daylight between our two countries. Can you envision any scenario where the US would take military action against Iran? That is something that the administration is continuing to weigh. I've always been a proponent of making it clear that all options remain on the table. It is very important for us to make sure that is the case, especially as this administration has adopted a policy of engagement with Teheran. Regarding Syria. What do you think of Washington's policy of engagements there? I clearly think that what we must keep our eyes focused on with Syria is that when moves are made in the hopes of trying to facilitate discussions between Syria and Israel, there is a clear understanding of what the expectations are, and that we are at least sensing that we are getting something in return. If we are going to allow for export of technology, if we are going to provide the regime in Syria with some confidence politically, we have to make sure that we are getting something - and that Damascus is giving up something - in return. The status quo is not acceptable as far as Syria is concerned. Is it realistic to think the Syrians will leave the Iranian orbit or stop supporting Hizbullah and Hamas? That is what we need to see. I would only support our concessions to Syria, if there was a demonstrable decoupling and removal of support for these terrorist operations that also have support from Teheran. You are coming here, you will be speaking to all the Israeli leaders. What do you think Israel should do now to move the diplomatic process forward? The congressional delegations that will be going over the next couple of weeks are not there to dictate to Israel what to do. Israel has a democratically elected government, it understands more than any how to protect its citizens, and that should be the first goal: that we should be there in support of our democratic ally in securing its population. We, as members of Congress, and as those of us who believe very strongly in the US-Israel relationship, those of us who believe that Israel is a vital pillar in our national security strategy, are there to try and see how we can further and enhance that relationship. Has the assessment that Israel is a "vital pillar" in the US national security strategy been eroded over the last few months? I think there are certainly some signs to indicate that there could be a shift in the policy, which is why we are going to Israel. Those of us in the Republican delegation, and I believe we have many counterparts on the other side of the aisle, feel very strongly that there should not be a shift in the US-Israel relationship, and that is why we are going to demonstrate our commitment to continuing to strengthen the relationship.