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Cantor’s Foreign-Aid Idea Would Hurt Israel

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This election season in the United States was not a great one for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Republicans and the tainted Emergency Committee for Israel launched mendacious ads and campaigns against pro-Israel Democrats across the country threatening the historic bipartisan support for Israel that has existed in Washington. The lies in these campaigns have been called out by an array of independent journalists from The New York Times to Salon, and politicizing support for Israel in this way has been condemned by key figures such as Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren.

But now Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia – the Republican whip and a key member of the GOP leadership team – has shared with us a disturbing policy planned for the future.

Cantor signaled to JTA recently that if Republicans took control of the House, he and the GOP leadership would sever aid to Israel from the larger foreign aid budget. Such a policy is terribly wrong – and there are good reasons why it has been opposed strongly by the organized pro-Israel community in Washington for so long.

Let me pause here to say something that I unfortunately never hear from the other side of the aisle: I am discussing a deeply unfortunate and misguided policy, not a person. I’m confident Eric Cantor is pro-Israel and that he is trying to do the right thing. But there’s a reason that AIPAC, our friends in Israel, and the pro-Israel world in general have vociferously opposed de-linking aid to Israel from the larger foreign operations budget for all these years.

Assistance to Israel is unavoidably intertwined with aid to other countries around the world. Paring assistance to other countries and moving America closer to isolationism – exactly what Cantor is afraid of, and what this strategy in essence is forecasting in a coming GOP Congress – ultimately will doom aid to Israel. Israelis clearly will see such a change as making them more reliant on and subservient to American foreign policy. This is especially true if, as some on the right have suggested, aid to Israel falls within the Pentagon’s budget.

As Israeli media such as Ynet already have noted, “Such a separation in the foreign aid budget might not be good for Israel, and may tie her down more when it comes to American interest and hurt her independence.”

Politically, it’s always been beneficial to make the argument that as a relatively tiny investment that pays great dividends, foreign aid helps countries around the world – not just Israel, of course. That argument goes out the window when Israel becomes the only country to get such separate, special treatment, with other countries (and ethnic groups in America) suddenly clamoring to be treated like our close ally Israel.

Jews historically have worked with the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, and other communities to jointly advance foreign aid for a range of countries; such coalitions to advance global assistance would become a thing of the past.

Cantor is not the only Republican in this election cycle advocating this change. Former Rep. Pat Toomey, running for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, has similarly urged this separation of aid to Israel from the foreign aid budget on the campaign trail. Toomey and Cantor perhaps are just taking note of the obvious – that passing a foreign operations bill in a future GOP Congress will be exceedingly difficult, thus threatening aid to Israel.

Indeed, in June 2009, in a Congress sans Tea Party members, more than half the House GOP caucus voted against the foreign aid budget – including aid to Israel. In a more conservative Congress, the number of votes for foreign aid only would diminish.

A far-right Congress will be problematic for the policy concerns and values of the vast majority of American Jews on so many fronts. Dramatic cuts to social service programs would be on the table, repeals of key health care reforms would be attempted and a woman’s right to choose would be challenged at every turn.

Yet this seemingly esoteric but actually far-reaching policy change – historically opposed by the spectrum of pro-Israel activists – has the power to threaten the very existence of aid to Israel, even though it has historically been the central item on the pro-Israel community’s agenda.

But elections do have consequences. Nobody knows this better than Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the state and foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. She’s a tireless supporter of Israel who is responsible for ensuring passage of aid to Israel.

As Lowey said recently, “Minority Whip Cantor’s proposal is as transparent as it is reckless.” Lowey went on to say that “Manipulating aid to Israel in this way would dangerously threaten continued bipartisan agreement on national security policy and programs other than direct assistance to Israel that aid in its security.”

She also said that “Too much is at stake to give Republicans in Congress a license to vote against the foreign aid budget, and it is clear that Eric Cantor’s outrageous proposal is based purely on political motives, not what is best for U.S. or global security.”

David Harris is the president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

David A. Harris

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