SAN MATEO, Calif. — Like many of his fellow Democrats, Rep. Tom Lantos was upset over Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s condemnation of Israel last week. But rather than join some Democrats in boycotting Maliki’s July 26 speech to Congress, Lantos logged his objection in person — during a breakfast that he co-sponsored for the Iraqi leader.
“It was a civilized breakfast, but it was a tension-filled breakfast,” Lantos told the Forward during an interview at his district office, 20 miles south of San Francisco.
“I’m very conscious of the fact that he has an incredibly different job, so it would be unrealistic to expect his views to be my views,” said Lantos, the House International Relations Committee’s ranking minority member. “His views are his views, but I felt it was very important for him to know what my views were.”
The controversy over Maliki marked the second time in recent weeks that Lantos found himself standing in the middle as Democratic and Republican partisans took turns questioning the other side’s pro-Israel bona fides. Last month, Lantos ended up co-sponsoring a pro-Israel resolution after another Bay Area Democrat, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, removed her name from it because Republicans refused to include language urging both sides in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict to avoid killing civilians. Some Republicans seized on her decision not to co-sponsor the resolution, even though she ended up voting for the measure and urging other Democrats to do likewise.
Lantos said that he’s trying to keep support for Israel from becoming a political cudgel for either party to use against the other, even as he maintains his own longtime, staunch support.
“I am adamantly and unalterably against turning Israel into a domestic political issue,” Lantos said. “Support for Israel is strongly bipartisan, and I would hope that it stays that way.”
Lantos said that Republicans balked at his efforts to reach a compromise between them and Pelosi. Democrats have noted that the Senate version of the resolution contained a similar clause.
“I worked hard to ensure that all of Leader Pelosi’s concerns were met, and I was disappointed when the Republican leadership chose to ignore this one,” he said Monday. “But it is important to note that Nancy Pelosi did vote for the resolution, she spoke on the floor in favor of it, and she encouraged other Democrats to do so. She has been unwavering in her support for Israel, so I wouldn’t read too much into this episode.”
Some Democrats jumped at their own opportunity to slam the House’s GOP leadership on Israel.
After urging Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert to cancel Maliki’s speech, several influential Democrats boycotted the address, including senators Charles Schumer of New York and Barbara Boxer of California, and New York representatives Nita Lowey, Gary Ackerman and Jerrold Nadler, and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro. Later in the day, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told a gathering of business leaders in Florida that Maliki “is an antisemite,” the Associated Press reported. “We don’t need to spend $200 and $300 and $500 billion bringing democracy to Iraq to turn it over to people who believe that Israel doesn’t have a right to defend itself and who refuse to condemn Hezbollah.”
The Republican National Committee fired back: “It is incredibly troubling that Howard Dean would seek to score cheap political points by attacking the democratically elected prime minister of Iraq.”
Pelosi and the three other top Democrats in the House joined Lantos on the escort committee for the prime minister’s speech. “This makes a significant statement of Democratic support,” Lantos said. “Others can make their own statements.”
Lantos said that he recently met with the British, French and German ambassadors to the United States, as well as with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, about the urgent need to create “a robust, large, dependable international military force” for rapid deployment along the Israeli-Lebanese border to protect Israel from further Hezbollah attacks, and along the Lebanese-Syrian border to prevent Hezbollah’s military from being re-supplied.
“If their governments are not receptive to what I’m saying,” Lantos said, “they would be guilty of huge hypocrisy because you can’t call for a cease-fire and not be willing to put boots on the ground — the two go hand in hand.”