San Diego Union-Tribune

December 2, 2001

Rep. Issa's heritage allows him access to Mideast diplomacy

By DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- He is a Cleveland boy who speaks perhaps a
dozen words of Arabic. He has been in Congress barely a year.
Yet as the nation battles global terrorism, Rep. Darrell Issa finds
his Lebanese roots have given him entree into the delicate world
of Middle East diplomacy.

Issa, a Vista congressman, two weeks ago led a group of
lawmakers to the Middle East, where he met with heads of state
to solicit support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Those who watch the region say that in today's Congress -- where
many lawmakers reflect their constituents' ignorance about
foreign affairs -- it is not hard for a newcomer such as Issa to
quickly take charge on matters such as U.S.-Middle East
relations.

They say that despite Issa's American rearing, his ancestry gives
him access to the Arab world in the same way Jewish lawmakers
are welcomed in Israel.

"If somebody of a different background goes over, they can say,
'Oh, he's biased against us,' " said James Zogby, president of the
Arab American Institute. "When Darrell goes over and says, 'You
guys have to think about this,' they can't ignore it."

Issa's grandfather came from a small Lebanese town south of
Tripoli. Issa was raised in Cleveland. He speaks a few words of
Arabic, and he has distant cousins in Lebanon.

He grew up in a neighborhood of Jews and worked delivering
poultry for a local rabbi. He was once president of the American
Task Force for Lebanon, a nonprofit group that provides
humanitarian relief in Lebanon and that includes
Lebanese-Americans Casey Kasem, the legendary radio disc
jockey, and actress Marlo Thomas.

"I went to more bar mitzvahs than I did birthday parties," Issa
said of his boyhood. "People look for, 'Oh, this person
understands my issues.' If you can give them a certain amount of
that, it gets you in the door and hopefully makes them more
willing to listen to your request to do things that they don't want
to do."

Issa -- a member of a House International Relations
subcommittee that deals with the Middle East -- visited heads of
state in Syria, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinian
territories. It was his third trip to the region since taking office in
January.

While there, he urged Lebanon's president to quell the activities
of Hezbollah, a fundamentalist Shiite Muslim group whose
guerrillas have killed Israeli soldiers in a disputed southeast
corner of the country. Hezbollah also is believed responsible for
suicide bombings and kidnappings of Westerners during
Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war that killed more than 260
Americans, most of them Marines who died in a 1983 bombing.

The State Department wants to freeze the movement's financial
assets, but the Lebanese government refuses to do so, arguing
that Hezbollah is not engaged in terrorism, only in resisting
Israeli occupation.

While in Lebanon, Issa called on Hezbollah to limit itself to
humanitarian and parliamentary activities. The group runs
schools and hospitals in Lebanon and has nine members in the
128-seat legislature. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud assured
Issa that Hezbollah would not operate overseas.

"The president delivered what we might consider half a loaf
because he didn't promise to end all activities of Hezbollah," Issa
said. "Still . . . it was a substantial commitment because it makes
him responsible for ensuring their activities don't spill outside
their region. He's put himself on the hook."

Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist with the Council on
Foreign Relations, said Arab leaders, accustomed to lawmakers
with thin knowledge of foreign affairs, appreciate those who
demonstrate expertise about their countries.

"A lot of members of Congress in their 30s and early 40s are the
post-Vietnam babies, and they don't have much memory of
American involvement in the world," Kipper said. "We're spoiled.
We're big. We're strong. But globalization means we need to be
more sensitive about other people's cultures."

The other congressmen on the trip were Lebanese-American
Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., Brian Kerns, R-Ind., and John Cooksey,
R-La.

Cooksey, who is running for the Senate, recently caused a stir
when he said U.S. authorities should stop and question anyone
"wearing a diaper on his head," a reference to the head garments
worn by Osama bin Laden and his supporters.

There are four House members of Arab descent in addition to
Issa and Rahall: Democrats Chris John of Louisiana and John
Baldacci of Maine, and Republicans Ray LaHood of Illinois and
John Sununu of New Hampshire.