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In Congress, Lonely on Lebanon

Rep. Darrell Issa, shown on a weekend trip to Lebanon, is a conservative Republican sympathetic to the Arab cause.
Rep. Darrell Issa, shown on a weekend trip to Lebanon, is a conservative Republican sympathetic to the Arab cause. (U.s. Congressional Office Of Rep. Darrell Issa)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

If you're trying to quantify the U.S. policy in the Middle East, here's a useful statistic: Since the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah started, 22 members of Congress have flown to Israel. Only one went to Lebanon.

"Logistically, it was difficult," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the lone Lebanon traveler, explained as he drove his Lexus to his Capitol Hill office yesterday. "The Israelis were shooting at vehicles and so on."

And it's only marginally safer for Issa at home. One of five Lebanese Americans in Congress, Issa occupies a no man's land in U.S. politics: a conservative Republican with a powerful sympathy for the Arab cause. He supports the Iraq war and voted for a resolution backing Israel in its fight with Hezbollah, but he has also accused Israel of "apartheid" and scolds the Bush administration for "missed opportunities" to win Arab friends.

His reward? Al-Jazeera propagandists ridicule him, and the radical Jewish Defense League tried to bomb his office after a WorldNetDaily.com commentator dubbed him "Jihad Darrell."

But Issa persists. Yesterday, he was at the National Press Club under the banner of the "American Task Force for Lebanon," giving a bleak slide show from his weekend trip to Lebanon, and scolding all parties in the conflict.

He condemned Israel's "wanton" violation of Lebanese territory and its "somewhat failed attempt" to defeat Hezbollah: "You can't end an idea or a terrorist organization by guns alone."

He disparaged the "few million dollars" the United States gave Lebanon after last year's eviction of its Syrian masters: "The Cedar Revolution was our opportunity, our opportunity to seize, and we did not."

And he dismissed an al-Jazeera correspondent who argued the Hezbollah line that Israel caused the war by occupying land called Shebaa Farms. "Al-Jazeera may believe that," Issa said, but "the return of Shebaa is in the hands of the United Nations."

Al-Jazeera's Mohammad al-Alami was evidently unsatisfied with Issa's demand for vast U.S. spending to rebuild Lebanon, or by his photos of Lebanon's fallen bridges and oil-soaked coastline. "You mentioned the oil slick and your concern about the eggs for the fish, and you didn't mention 1,000 civilians who got killed," Alami charged, "children seen all over the Arab world, you know, torn to pieces by Israelis with the American blessings and the American weapons."

"Yeah, that's usual," Issa said of the harangue as he got in his car with the "United We Stand" bumper sticker. "Classic Arab propaganda."

Playing Middle East peacemaker was not the role Issa, a former car-alarm magnate who favors slicked-back hair, had planned when he was elected to Congress in 2000. He's known best as the anti-tax activist who led the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis, then wept when he announced that he himself would not be a candidate for governor.

But after coming to Washington, he felt the pull of the land his grandfather left in 1914. "When your last name is Arabic for Jesus," he explained, "you sort of get a natural ability to go through the region and be accepted a little bit more quickly." But only a little bit. Issa says that as an Arab American with generally pro-Bush views, he isn't trusted by either side, an awkwardness that dates back to his time as a Lebanese Christian delivery boy for a kosher butcher.

The awkwardness continues. He complained about a House resolution last month condemning Israel's enemies, but voted for it anyway after his alternative version failed. He opposed sanctions against Syria, but he vigorously supports the U.S. campaign in Iraq.

Some might see these as contradictions. Issa portrays it as evenhandedness. One minute he's condemning Israel's targeting in Lebanon ("they blew up all the fuel tanks just to see them burn!") and the next, he's bemoaning Arab intransigence ("they never focus [on] what is a legitimate compromise").

Safely returned from his wayfaring (he also stopped in Israel and Egypt, which gave him a ride to Beirut on a C-130), the congressman has developed some proposals for the Middle East. First, he calls for a "dramatic difference" in aid to Lebanon in the form of a supplemental spending bill. Next, have the United Nations draw new boundaries for the region if Israel and its neighbors can't do it themselves by a U.N.-imposed deadline.

"Let's not stay with the tradition that the parties shall agree," Issa said, sipping a Coke Zero as he parked his Lexus in the Cannon building garage. "We've drawn artificial lines before, not the least of which is the very creation of the state of Israel, so let's finish drawing that part of the map."

Call it the Issa Peace Plan. It is, of course, a non-starter in Washington: Israel has long rejected such an approach. But, for a car-alarm mogul, it's not a bad diplomatic debut.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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