The Middle East conflict is coming to a congressional race near you.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), known among Jews for his unwavering support for Israel, will face off Nov. 5 against a Republican he has defeated before and a Libertarian who is a Palestinian refugee from the West Bank.
Lantos, however, is regarded as a shoo-in for re-election to the 12th District seat he has held for 22 years, representing constituents in a district covering parts of San Francisco and San Mateo counties.
The Arab-American, Maad Abu-Ghazalah, espouses views that veer sharply from those of the Jewish mainstream. He is happy to have a chance to be heard even if he doesn't win.
The Republican contender, Michael J. Moloney, holds views on the Mideast similar to those of Abu-Ghazalah. Moloney holds the Libertarian candidate when he was defeated by Lantos in 1998.
Abu-Ghazalah criticizes the congressman's "unconditional support of Israel" and said that Lantos is too focused on finding a military solution to the Middle East conflict.
"He wants to run over the other side, bulldoze them, instead of recognizing there is another side, a side that also wants to live in peace," said Abu-Ghazalah, a former president of the American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who cautioned, "I don't consider myself anti-Jewish or anti-Israel by any stretch."
Lantos counters that he longs for the day when there will be peace in the Middle East.
"The Palestinian people deserve better than Yasser Arafat and this murderous mob that seems to be in control," Lantos said. "It will take many years, but with the backing of the American people and government and other democratic governments in Europe and elsewhere, I'm optimistic the job will get done."
Moloney, meanwhile, said he finds himself "180 degrees on the opposite end" of Lantos when it comes to Israel. He feels the United States should cut off all financial aid to the Jewish state and allow the country to fend for itself.
"The fact of the matter is that Israel can't take care of business because it has to check back with the United States," said Moloney. "That [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is always checking with Uncle Sam is absurd to me. The United States has to absolutely declare our independence from Israel and let Israel take care of itself.
"It's a great country — the fourth leading military power on this planet. It's amazing that surrounded by Arab countries, they have gone to war [several] times, and won them all."
Lantos, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who fought in the anti-Nazi underground at the age of 16, has long been one of the strongest supporters of Israel — as well as world Jewry — in the House. Lantos is a secular Jew. However, his wife, Annette, who is also a survivor, converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon faith their two daughters also practice.
"There are few members of Congress more important to U.S.-Israel relations than Tom Lantos," said Jerry Yanowitz, immediate past president of AIPAC's Pacific Northwest region. "He is the key member when it comes to sustaining that relationship and transmitting it to others in Congress."
As for the Palestinian Authority, Lantos said it is a "clearly corrupt, terrorism dictatorship" with whom it's "impossible to negotiate." Only by creating the Palestinian Authority anew, with "responsible leadership determined to live in peace," can peace come to the region.
Earlier this year Lantos introduced a bill with Tom DeLay (R-Texas) condemning the "ongoing support and coordination of terror" by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, also requesting additional aid for Israel's defense.
But Abu-Ghazala's media liaison, Jeff Grubler, who is Jewish, questions the legitimacy of Lantos' pro-Israel stance.
"If you cannot come to any type of compromise with the Palestinian people, any type of solution, and you're only going to continue more war, then in my opinion, you are not pro-Israel," he said.
"Tom Lantos has a great record on human rights. But when it comes to the Middle East, he has a huge blind spot."
Abu-Ghazalah, a native of Nablus, West Bank, grew up in Saudi Arabia, immigrating to the United States in 1979. He said it is of grave importance to note that Mideast terrorists "are not coming out of a vacuum" but out of a sense of injustice.
He contends that leaders like Lantos will lead the Mideast into war, and that peace will not come to the region "as long as the refugees are still lingering. It doesn't matter how much money is poured into the region, they're not going to forget their land."
According to Abu-Ghazalah, who owns a software consulting company in Silicon Valley, "it just seems like common sense to me that people don't wake up in the morning thinking about how they want to die. The refugees have land rights. But nobody is listening to them. So out of desperation they're doing desperate things."
Lantos, in defense, said he is used to having his staunch beliefs on Israel challenged, especially with the upswing in Middle East violence.
Such was the case during two town hall meetings in June, one in San Francisco and one in San Mateo, which were interrupted by a small but loud group of pro-Palestinians.
According to Lantos, the group was shouting, chanting, holding inflammatory signs about Lantos and Zionism, and "making it impossible for a dialogue to unfold. No one was preventing them from offering observations or making comments, but clearly that was not enough for them."
One attendee later described the scene as "pure anarchy."
Lantos said it was the first time in his 22 years in Congress when the spirit of his town hall meetings was not civilized, respectful and democratic. While he did not try to get the group arrested, he ended up cutting the meetings short.
"It is only a sad commentary on [the pro-Palestinian group] who — instead of participating and celebrating what we as a nation have achieved and hoping to see this achieved elsewhere like the Middle East — are moving in a repressive, anti-democratic, ugly direction by preventing a free and open dialogue."
While Abu-Ghazalah did not comment on the town meetings directly, he contends that a growing number of Lantos' constituents no longer support his approach on Israel.
"Right now nobody feels safe, so we know something needs to change," he said. "The formulas we've been using are not working."
Sam Lauder, a partner in a political consulting firm and an active participant in the pro-Israel community, said Abu-Ghazalah's belief about Lantos' constituents is simply not so.
"If he's running to get his voice heard, then great, that's democracy in action," Lauder said of Abu-Ghazalah. "If he thinks he's going to win, then I've got a bridge to sell." In the heavily Democratic 12th District, "I don't see this challenge being a huge issue. He will not win."
Lantos also remains unfettered. He already defeated Moloney in 1998, when Moloney ran as a Libertarian. In both the 1998 and 2000 elections, Lantos received 74 percent of the vote, according to PoliSci.com
"On the basis of the most recent public opinion polls, the overwhelming majority clearly recognizes that Israel is our friend and democratic ally — it's the only democracy in the region," the incumbent said. "Another poll I saw shows that the opinion of Arafat in 3 percent favorable and 66 percent unfavorable. I suspect this pretty well reflects national views if who he is and what he is."