Primary poses big challenge for pro-Israel Tom Lantos

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), a 12-term incumbent who is widely viewed as one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress, is facing one of the most serious challenges in his political career next week.

Lantos will face two challengers in the Democratic primary Tuesday, March 2. Both are lawyers and one, Maad Abu-Ghazalah, is Palestinian-born.

But the greatest threat to Lantos’ hold on his seat is not Abu-Ghazalah, but Ro Khanna, an Indian-American.

Khanna is a 27-year-old newcomer to politics, whose youth and opposition to the war in Iraq align with the results of polls showing that 12th District voters — meaning those not only in San Mateo, but in parts of San Francisco — overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act, while the 76-year-old Lantos voted in favor of both.

Khanna’s Jewish endorsements include Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh, spiritual leader of Or Shalom Jewish Community.

“Ro Khanna opposes the Patriot Act and Bush’s policy on preventative war, and I believe these are the majority views in our district,” said Baugh. “He also seems to take a measured and nuanced approach to the Middle East, which is supportive of Israel, but also sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians.”

Khanna attended several Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group meetings in San Mateo to help shape his Mideast policy. He has also met with AIPAC staffers.

But just as Khanna has earned the support of some of the more grassroots organizations, Lantos — a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor — has the endorsements of most of the Democratic establishment, including the California Democratic Party. The Jewish establishment is also firmly behind Lantos, as he has the support of the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club.

“Tom Lantos leads by the example set by Raoul Wallenberg, our club’s namesake,” said Phil Ginsberg, Wallenberg Club president. “Tom Lantos is a leader in every sense of the word. He’s courageous, and has dedicated his life to human rights and social justice.”

Khanna maintains that he is as pro-Israel as the incumbent, but that there are many ways to be pro-Israel.

“We have to find a way of articulating a very pro-Israel position that recognizes it as a strong ally and recognizes its security threat, but expresses empathy to the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people,” Khanna said. “That’s in the best interest of the U.S., in the best interest of Israel and in the best interest of the world.”

Khanna further asserted that the U.S.-led war on Iraq had a detrimental effect on the U.S.’s role in the region.

Noting that he admired former President Clinton for his efforts in bringing both sides together, Khanna said, “The Bush administration made a colossal mistake in disengaging from the Middle East. And this war in Iraq also undermined U.S. credibility.”

Lantos said that while peace efforts are more effective when the U.S. is involved, nevertheless, the U.S. “cannot and should not impose a solution; we can merely facilitate a process that allows Israel and the Palestinians to work out a solution among themselves. The Bush administration was initially reluctant to be involved and that was regrettable.”

The third candidate in the race, Abu-Ghazalah, 41, is a native of Nablus, who was raised in Saudi Arabia. While Abu-Ghazalah ran against Lantos in the last election as a Libertarian, getting 7 percent of the vote, he switched to the Democratic Party.

Abu-Ghazalah says he is a “non-interventionist,” but when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he believes the United States’ position is inconsistent, at best.

“You can’t just give money over there, and think you’re helping the situation,” he said. “There should be some accountability. The same goes for Israel as the Palestinian Authority.”

When pressed, Abu-Ghazalah said he believes a two-state solution is unworkable, and suggested both Israelis and Palestinians eventually share the land as well as share power.

“I think one state is absolutely unacceptable because it would mean the end of Israel as we know it,” said Khanna, who favors the Bush administration’s “road map,” as well as efforts at citizen diplomacy.

Lantos’ position is in favor of the two-state solution vis-à-vis the road map but that it be implemented in a “performance-based” manner and not a “date-based” one.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."