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Congress Cautioned On Support of Israel
Some Lawmakers Seek a Middle Ground

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; A10

Even as the fighting continues and the civilian casualties mount in Lebanon, sentiment in Congress is overwhelmingly on Israel's side. Last week, the House passed a resolution, 410 to 8, that went even beyond the Bush administration in supporting for Israel in its battle with Hezbollah militants.

A bid by the four House lawmakers of Lebanese descent to add language urging restraint against civilian targets was rejected in negotiations. The resolution's only nod to those caught in the crossfire came in a recognition of "Israel's longstanding commitment to minimizing civilian loss" and an expression of condolences -- in the last sentence of a three-page document -- "to all innocent victims of recent violence in Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories."

But a few lawmakers from both parties are warning that the United States and Israel may pay a price -- in world opinion and in public support -- if Congress does not find a middle ground in the search for a peaceful resolution.

"We're going to be vindicated," predicted Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a Lebanese American who failed to secure language urging "all parties to protect innocent life and civilian infrastructure." "On the night of the vote, that wasn't the will of the Congress. But . . . 10 weeks from now, the fighting will be over. In 10 weeks, I think we will regret not having shown more empathy for the suffering of innocent Lebanese."

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), another lawmaker of Lebanese descent, said that "the longer carnage continues, there will be reassessment in American public opinion of the American role in bringing this to a stop."

Discussions in Congress yesterday, however, revolved not around the civilian carnage dominating diplomatic debates but Democratic lawmakers' threats to boycott a speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today if he does not renounce his denunciations of Israel's actions. Even some of the Lebanese American lawmakers involved last week say they never had a chance to prevail.

"Israel obviously dominates the House," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "If these were innocent people dying by the hundreds in Israel, there would be another resolution on the floor this week. But I knew it would be a losing proposition. The House tilts so far toward Israel and so far against anything else, I knew it would be like going into a tsunami."

Recognizing the political dynamics from the start, Issa, LaHood, Rahall and Charles Boustany (R-La.) chose their words carefully when they drew up a resolution "condemning the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah, affirming the right of Israel to conduct operations to secure the kidnapped soldiers" and "urging all parties to protect innocent life and civilian infrastructure."

The first five clauses of the document placed the blame for the crisis squarely on Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria and elements of the Lebanese government before expressing concerns for the fate of Lebanon's democratically elected government. Support for its call for restraint came in the form of a quotation from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying, "All sides must act with restraint to resolve this incident peacefully and to protect innocent life."

But the response from House Republican leaders was unequivocal.

"The Israelis were attacked by Hezbollah terrorists operating out of southern Lebanon. It is the terrorist organization that is lobbing grenades and lobbing missiles into northern Israel," Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said yesterday. "Are there going to be civilian casualties? Yes. Are [the Israelis] doing their best to minimize those? Yes. But to put a terrorist organization on the same level as the Israeli government, I think, is unwise and unfair."

The sentiment has broad support in both parties. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said that language urging restraint to protect civilian life would have been interpreted as a slap at Israel -- and that at a time when world opinion is predictably against the Jewish state, the United States must stand firmly on Israel's side.

"I am very sensitive to Lebanon's budding democracy. I'm very sensitive to the delicate balancing act we're in, and I grieve for civilian casualties," Engel said. But he added: "I don't want to be an honest broker. I want to be a friend and ally of the only democratic government in the Middle East that is besieged by its enemies."

In today's heated atmosphere, even the Lebanese American lawmakers are careful to express their support for Israel and for its right of self-defense. Each represents a district with a large Lebanese population, and each said he has heard harrowing stories of devastation and angry constituent appeals for action.

"Violence and warfare are always disturbing, but as policymakers, we need to look at what steps need to be made to make a lasting peace, not just knee-jerk reactions," Boustany said. "I agree with what Israel is doing."

But as conversations continue, their concerns quickly swing to the stories that constituents tell: of Israeli raids on a Beirut airport fuel depot "just so they can have a July Fourth fireworks event," as Issa put it, or the bombing of a radio tower in LaHood's ancestral village of Atou, 100 miles north of Beirut and far from Hezbollah's influence.

"I understand why the Israelis would attack the sources of the rocket launches in the south," Issa said. "But I'm not going to ignore these attacks on targets far to the north, in Christian neighborhoods where it appears to be punishment of the people of Lebanon."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company