WASHINGTON, Dec. 16 (JTA) — Two years ago, Eric Cantor was one of 435, a freshman lawmaker on Capitol Hill. Now, with only one term under his belt, Cantor (R-Va.) is a leader, the chief deputy whip of the Republican caucus and the only Jewish Republican in the House. Cantor, 39, was appointed to the prestigious post of chief deputy whip earlier this month, a position previously held by Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), now the majority whip, and by the current speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), before Blunt. The position — a seat at a small table of Republican House leaders who set the policy agenda for the chamber — is seen as a significant appointment for a man with only two years of experience in Congress. In his one term, Cantor has advocated strongly for Israel’s security, gaining a reputation as one of the most hawkish members of Congress on the issue. Cantor proposed legislation in January that would cut off all aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including humanitarian funds currently run by the United States Agency for International Development. Last year, claiming that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was desecrating Judeo-Christian heritage on the Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Cantor introduced a bill that would pressure the Palestinians to stop excavation on the mount. Neither of Cantor’s bills have received a hearing or garnered much support on Capitol Hill. The bills also largely have been dismissed by the organized Jewish community. One Jewish leader said that while Cantor’s heart is in the right place, he sometimes acts too quickly. “He’s sometimes knee-jerk, as opposed to thinking it through,” said one American Jewish leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Things come out before they’re fully formed.” But Cantor has his defenders. “He is arguably one of the top five best friends of Israel in Congress,” said Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. “He is one of the people who early on understood that the Arab-Israeli war is not over borders, but over Israel itself.” Cantor defends his legislation, saying that humanitarian aid to Palestinians frees up funds for their leaders to purchase weapons and promote terrorism. Cantor told JTA he hopes to advocate a strong U.S.-Israel relationship from his new post at the leadership table, where he will be joined by other pro-Israel legislators such as Blunt and the incoming House majority leader, Tom DeLay (R-Texas). “I have been to Israel many times and I have seen the failure of the Oslo process,” Cantor said. “The pressure was placed on an ally and a friend, that being Israel, into making concessions that were not in its interest and not in the interest of the United States.” While he recognizes that both the U.S. and Israeli administrations have come out in favor of the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, Cantor says there is much to be discussed about its implementation, and wants political negotiations to be delayed until Palestinian violence ends. “I don’t think there is any hope that you can turn around a thug like Arafat and make him into a partner for peace,” he said. His message will be well received in the Republican caucus. “I think Eric’s within the mainstream of the Republican Party” on Israel, said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He doesn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting to convince the Republican party on Israel.” On the domestic front, Cantor has proven himself to be closer to the Republican leadership than to the American Jewish population at large, Jewish leaders say, noting his views against hate crime legislation. Cantor is more conservative than Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), the retiring Republican House legislator, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the only Republican Jew in the Senate. Incoming Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) will also join the Jewish caucus next term. For example, Cantor co-sponsored a bill, which ultimately failed in the House, that would have allowed churches to participate in political campaigns. That bill was opposed by Jewish groups. Cantor also garnered an “A” from the National Rifle Association for his work as a state legislator — he served nine years in the Virginia House of Delegates — and was called one of the “most dependable” state legislators by the Christian Coalition. “You’re going to find a solid conservative record, and I think on some issues we’re going to disagree with him,” one Jewish leader said. “But his door is always open to us.” Brooks and other Republican leaders have been hoping to get more Jewish voters to embrace the GOP, and have been using their strong support for Israel as a rallying point. With the retirement of Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okl.), an African American, Republicans in Congress had no minorities among their leadership. That has led some in the Jewish community to speculate that Cantor’s selection for the whip position was based on his religion. “The Republican leadership wants to have some diversity in who their leadership is,” one Jewish leader said. “If you’re making inroads into the Jewish community, it’s a smart move to make.” But Cantor says that is not why he was hired, noting his work in the last Congress and in Virginia. “I would like to think my selection by Roy Blunt reflects being a work horse, not a show horse or a symbol,” Cantor said.
Cantor rises in Republican ranks