Cantor swipes at Obama policy on Mideast trip

Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) took a swipe at President Barack Obama's Mideast policy in Jerusalem on Thursday, telling reporters he was worried about the administration's direction in its attempts to forge a settlement in the region.

"We're here to try and make things better; we are here because we are concerned," Cantor said. "We are concerned about what the White House has been signaling as of late in their desire to push through in terms of a Middle East peace plan."

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Cantor's comments leave the high-ranking Republican open to Democratic criticism for criticizing the president while on foreign soil. Democrats turned the often-quoted, often-broken axiom about politics stopping at the water's edge on President George W. Bush last year when, speaking before Israel's parliament, the president took what many interpreted as veiled shots at candidate Obama's openness to negotiations with Iran.

"We have a protocol ... around here that we don't criticize the president when he is on foreign soil," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after the May 2008 speech. "One would think that that would apply to the president, that he would not criticize Americans when he is on foreign soil."

Many on the right then accused Obama of breaking the same protocol during an April address in Strasbourg, France, when he said "there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."

Cantor, who was leading a 25-member congressional delegation to the Middle East, said Thursday he was also disturbed by the Obama administration's criticism of the eviction of two Arab families from an East Jerusalem neighborhood earlier in the week. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a joint news conference with the Jordanian foreign minister on Monday, called the evictions "deeply regrettable," "not in keeping with Israeli obligations" and "provocative actions."

"I'm very troubled by that, because I don't think we in America would want another country telling us how to implement and execute our laws," Cantor said.

Cantor was joined by other Republicans in the delegation at a press conference at the David Citadel Hotel.

"For all of the things that the people of Israel have been through, the resolve of the people, the strength of the people is something that you just can't appreciate fully until you've been here," Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said. The lawmakers' trip ranged from viewing settlements pulled from the Gaza Strip in 2005 to meeting with Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Salaam Fayad.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said they asked the Palestinian Authority prime minister if he was ready to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, yet received a hedging response from Fayad.

"We need to have more than a willingness to meet by those opposed to Israel," Gohmert said, stressing that the administration should expect concrete steps from Israel's opponents in the peace process.

Cantor said the lack of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would make the peace process "very, very difficult."

"If there's an unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians -- the so-called moderate Palestinians -- to commit themselves now to recognition that there will be a Jewish state here, that's very troubling," Cantor said. "We hope certainly that there can be finally a laying down of the arms, an end to the hatred, and an acceptance of the fact that there is and should be a Jewish state here in the Middle East.

"The realities on the ground are such that we could never see Israel return back to the '67 lines," Cantor added, shooting down a cornerstone of the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative.

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Members also said that they emerged from the trip with a heightened understanding of the threats to Israel's security.

"It is essential that we work together to make sure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon," said Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.). "I believe that our Democratic colleagues next week will agree with us in that regard and we urge the administration in Washington as well, recognizing that this is so destabilizing to this region."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will be leading a 31-member delegation to the region next week. Both trips are sponsored by the nonprofit charitable American Israel Education Foundation, which is affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"What I want to bring back to the United States and to the Congress and to the Obama administration is an understanding of this threat," said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), "because I do not believe at this time that the president of the United States and his administration fully comprehends the magnitude of this threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons and what it will to do destabilize this entire region."

Members said they're leaving the Middle East with a renewed appreciation for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

"I knew it in my head before I came here how important our relationship -- the United States and Israel's relationship -- is, and after three days here I know in my heart," said Pete Olson (R-Texas).