Reflections on Lantos

Steve Clemons, arguably the most effective liberal policy advocate in Washington these days, does a service in his musings on the passing of Tom Lantos, weighed in at TPM Café on the death of U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who was the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress.

The conventional wisdom on Lantos was that he was a foreign affairs hawk but a doctrinaire liberal on social issues, and that helped him fend off primary challenges in his ultra-liberal San Francisco-area district. Clemons, of the New America Foundation, offered a more nuanced view: Lantos’ worldview, deeply informed by his experience resisting the Nazis in his native Hungary and of discovering later that his family had perished in the Holocaust, could take him into ideological realms marked “progressive” or “conservative” on our modern-day political maps.

There was always an undercurrent of concern for the global underclass, for those discriminated against, for those with no ladder to get up to a level where decency and humaneness were not anomalies.

Then Clemons addressed the criticisms of Lantos on the Left:

Lantos was not someone without controversies. Many, like myself, who are very committed to seeing a near-term resolution to the Israel-Palestine standoff had been frustrated with him in the past. Some of his detractors considered him to be one of AIPAC’s chief allies (they would say “tools”) in Congress.

There is no doubt that he was a committed advocate of Israel’s interests as he saw them – but recently, in several discussions that I was privileged to have with him – Lantos had really shifted his rhetoric and his thinking somewhat away from an Israel-centric filter when looking at Middle East affairs and towards a position that supported robust American diplomacy in the region – with Iran, with Israel-Palestine, and with the contingent parts of the Middle East puzzle in the broadest sense. I think many of Lantos’ detractors have not given him credit he probably deserves for finally seeing the need to achieve a different kind of equilibrium between Israel and its neighbors than he had advocated in the past.

Unfortunately, Lantos’ own realizations seem to have come too late in his political and real life for him to use his powerful Congressional perch to help lend legitimacy as a Holocaust-surviving House Member on any eventual deal that the US, Israel, Palestine and other Arab states cobble together by the end of 2008.
Congresswoman Jane Harman is another strong advocate of Israel’s interests who also has made a shift and advocated a “no false choice” approach to Israel-Palestine negotiations and in America’s broader engagement in the Middle East. She too has received some of the same criticism that Lantos has endured – and yet, she has emerged as a compelling advocate of engagement and of diplomacy over military responses to Iran for example….

Lantos would have been a tougher sell on any peace deal in the Middle East – a skeptic perhaps – but in my view still someone who in the end believed that an Arab-Israel settlement was in the vital national interest of the United States.

We asked JTA’s man in Washington, Ron Kampeas, for his take on Clemons’ piece. Ron credited Clemons for putting forth a thoughtful look at Lantos, but thinks he missed the mark on a few important points about the late lawmaker and the workings of the pro-Israel lobby:

Where I have a quibble with Clemons is how he characterizes Lantos’ views on Israel in this spectrum. He writes: “Lantos had really shifted his rhetoric and his thinking somewhat away from an Israel-centric filter when looking at Middle East affairs and towards a position that supported robust American diplomacy in the region – with Iran, with Israel-Palestine, and with the contingent parts of the Middle East puzzle in the broadest sense.”

Lantos’ backing of engagement with Iran was longstanding and was of a piece with always keeping the door open to negotiations. He consistently backed engagement with Libya, and in 2004 became one of the first congressmen in decades to visit the rogue state, helping to forge the breakthrough that ended its weapons program.

Clemons tries hard to suggest that these are departures imposed by the orthodoxy preached by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but to do so is to misunderstand the relationship between AIPAC and its friends on the Hill. AIPAC is not so stupid that it would cut off a lawmaker – especially one as powerful as Lantos – for departing from the party line, even while he or she advances the pro-Israel agenda in other spheres.

So it was with Lantos. At the last AIPAC policy conference, Lantos was lauded for the far-reaching Iran sanctions bill he authored (and which now languishes in the Senate). And what about his insistence that he hoped to meet with Iran’s leaders? No one in the room uttered a peep. That was his way, and Lantos had the credibility to pursue it.

The same goes for Lantos’ readiness to countenance deeper engagement with the Palestinian Authority. Lantos was not leaving “Israel-centric” values behind; his skepticism of a polity that supported Hamas – a party that had incorporated into its charter the same Jew-hating calumnies that nurtured the Nazi beast – were rooted in something much deeper than a phone call from an AIPAC donor.

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