Even before grabbing national headlines this week when his offices were the target of an alleged bombing plot by Jewish extremists, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had gained the attention of the American Jewish community.
A Lebanese Christian, Issa spent a week in the Middle East last month meeting with Arab leaders, including Syrian President Bashar Assad, and having dinner with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
When word reached home of his meetings — including apparently misquoted comments in which Issa appeared to say that Hezbollah was not participating in terrorist acts — he was lambasted.
Those comments apparently are what caught the attention of the Jewish Defense League, a militant group that advocates violence.
Two leaders of the Jewish Defense League were arrested Wednesday, accused of planning to bomb Issa’s district office and two other Arab targets in the Los Angeles area.
Jewish lawmakers and American Jewish organizations, who have battled with Issa over Middle East legislation, rallied behind the freshman lawmaker, condemning the JDL’s alleged plans.
“AIPAC is particularly disturbed by the reports of the JDL’s intent to harm Darrell Issa, a democratically elected member of the House of Representatives,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “There is absolutely no place in our democracy for such reprehensible behavior and blatant disregard for freedom of speech and human life.”
Despite their unwavering defense of Issa’s personal security, Jewish officials are cautious in their approach to him.
Issa has stood out in his first year in Congress.
Though he calls himself “staunchly pro-Israel,” he has made it clear through his actions and words that he will criticize Israeli policies and what he calls America’s unilateral support for Israel.
He is seen as an important player, serving on the Middle East subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, key committees that deal with issues of concern to Jewish groups.
As Jewish activists and lawmakers try to gauge Issa’s views, Jewish insiders say he has engaged the American Jewish community, eager to meet and discuss issues but insistent on promoting understanding for the Arab vantage point in the Middle East.
Some see him as an emerging leader within the Arab American community, comparing him to Spencer Abraham, the former Michigan senator and current secretary of energy.
“He has a fire in his belly on these issues,” said an official with an American Jewish organization. “He’s going to be for his community what Tom Lantos is for the Jewish community.”
Issa, who grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, describes himself as a product of a Jewish neighborhood. His first after-school job was delivering kosher chickens for a rabbi, he said.
As a Lebanese American, Issa — who founded Directed Electronics, a car alarm manufacturer — says he has a unique perspective on both sides of the Middle East conflict, and that he wants to work to bring about peace.
“I bring a perspective of being able to reach out to the Arab side of the equation with some hopeful credibility because of my background,” he told JTA.
He says his perspective has been welcomed by colleagues on the Mideast subcommittee, a panel overflowing with advocates for Israel.
“I asked to be on it for reasons of wanting to work with the existing members and bring them a different insight,” he said.
“He really saw himself as a bridge builder between Arabs and Jews,” said an official with a Jewish organization, who asked not to be identified.
This official called it “naive” for Issa to think he could persuade Hezbollah not to engage in terrorism.
But that apparently was his mission last month when Issa arrived for his third trip to the Middle East as a lawmaker, hoping to calm Arab concerns after the Bush administration named Hezbollah a foreign terrorist organization.
After meeting with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, Issa told reporters that he was bringing back to the United States a message that Hezbollah had a limited scope.
“You must differentiate between any organization working here from other organizations that might have a global reach,” he told the Financial Times.
Issa’s office confirmed the quote, but said Issa was referring to Lahoud’s position, not his own.
Other articles, including the Tehran Times, quoted Issa as saying Hezbollah never was involved in terrorism.
Issa’s aides say they believe the misquotes were leaked from the Iranian News Agency and that it was particularly disturbing to Issa, whose congressional district includes Camp Pendelton, a Marine Corps base which housed several men killed in a Hezbollah attack on a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.
Despite Issa’s denial, the Tehran Times article was picked up by U.S. columnists and widely circulated on the Internet. Issa’s congressional offices received a great deal of negative feedback.
“We don’t mind explaining or defending the things we do say, but it’s frustrating to put down stories based on things we didn’t say,” said Dale Neugebauer, Issa’s chief of staff. .
A former president of the American Task Force for Lebanon, Issa went to the region with the opposite intention, “delivering a message that Hezbollah needed to renounce violence,” Neugebauer said.
Issa said he also sought information about the whereabouts of kidnapped Israeli soldiers and was told by Lebanese leaders that they would try to get that information. He has not received anything yet, he said.
Issa said he believed that because he asked for the information in a closed environment, instead of announcing it as a goal of his trip, the Lebanese government might be more forthcoming.
Some say Issa expected to gain commitments from Hezbollah to cease terrorism, and was instead used by the Iranians and Lebanese. But Neugebauer says Issa is not as naive as he is being portrayed.
“I think he wants to participate in the process in a productive way,” Neugebauer said. “It is a difficult and intractable problem, but he does see the opportunity for progress in some areas.”
In Washington, Issa has emerged as someone who will play the role of “devil’s advocate.” Despite being a freshman lawmaker, he has not hesitated to raise his voice.
“If we abandon the peace process, then Palestinian lands are held without democracy and that prevents the term of ‘democratic’ in describing Israel,” Issa said. “Israel is left with nothing but an apartheid state.”
When the House of Representatives last week debated a measure condemning the recent suicide bombings in Israel, Issa voted for the resolution, but not before negotiating changes that placed the responsibility for the attacks on Palestinian terrorist groups rather than the Palestinian people.
Even after Issa worked out a deal with Jewish lawmakers, he went to the House floor and said he wanted similar resolutions condemning Israeli actions that kill Palestinians.
He said he was able to secure changes to the legislation by asking Jewish lawmakers to “look at what we are trying to accomplish.”
Noting that American political disagreements should be hashed out on television and not with violence, Ackerman and other lawmakers flanked Issa on Wednesday, decrying the JDL and the alleged plot to bomb his California office.
“As soon as I heard about it I said we have to speak out against this, before people make any assumptions that this was cheered by the Jewish community,” Ackerman said.
They noted the extremism of the JDL, an organization founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and expressed support for Issa’s work on the House committee and his commitment to the peace process.
“It was a wonderful outpouring of support,” Issa said. “The reason that someone like me can try to reach out to that side is because I have support of Jewish members of the group.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.