Rep. Dana Rohrabacher says he always knew that if ever he got involved in Middle East politics, his views would get him in trouble.
He was right.
Rohrabacher is facing a primary challenge next month from former Rep. Robert K. Dornan. These two Republicans were once comrades in arms in promoting conservative principles. But the Middle East is the one major issue on which Dornan stayed with mainstream conservatives and Rohrabacher has strayed.
There's no question that Dornan is an unabashed backer of Israel. He has visited the country 15 times. His public statements show a long history of unqualified support for Israel and condemnation of Palestinian tactics. And while Dornan says he wouldn't go so far as to say Rohrabacher is anti-Israel, he fumes at Rohrabacher's statements that both Israelis and Palestinians have committed atrocities against civilians caught up in the Mideast struggle. And he's critical of alliances Rohrabacher has with groups and individuals Dornan says condone terrorism. Dornan specifically points to campaign contributions Rohrabacher received from a Muslim activist who later was indicted on a charge of laundering Libyan money.
COLLEAGUES TO OPPONENTS
Residence: Huntington Beach
Education: B.A., Cal State Long Beach; M.A., University of Southern California.
Political history: Member of Congress since 1989. Chairs the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics; member, International Relations Committee. Former speechwriter for President Reagan.
Residence: Sunset Beach
Family: Married, five children, 14 grandchildren
Education: Loyola High School, attended Loyola University
Occupation: Radio talk-show host; TV commentator
Political history: Former congressman, served from 1977-1982 and from 1985-1996, before he was defeated in re-election bid by Rep. Loretta Sanchez. He lost a rematch to Sanchez in 1998 and hasn't run for office since.
Dornan is a decided underdog in a race in which elected GOP leaders, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, donors and activists, have lined up squarely behind Rohrabacher. But the former lawmaker turned radio talk-show host is hoping that shining a light on Rohrabacher's Middle East views will dent Rohrabacher's support.
"You cannot say that the Israeli Defense Forces, who (sacrifice) young soldiers to avoid noncombatants being hurt, have committed the same atrocities" as the Palestinians, Dornan has said.
Yes you can, says Rohrabacher, who views himself as an honest broker and peacemaker. He says he considers himself a Zionist – defined, he says, as someone whose "goal is to have an Israel that is a Jewish state that exists basically in the pre-'67 borders that is living in peace with its neighbors."
"I know they go nuts when I say that I believe that the Israelis, in the past, intentionally, in callous disregard for how many women and children would be lost, did things that would terrorize the Palestinians," Rohrabacher said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "Just as the Palestinians have terrorized the Israelis, in both cases, people who shoot unarmed people are wrong. And it's immoral."
Rohrabacher's views have disillusioned some of his closest friends and allies.
"As a matter of principle and personal conscience, I'm deeply troubled by Dana's posture on foreign policy, national security, terrorism and the Mideast," says Arnold Steinberg, a Southern California political strategist who has supported and worked to help elect both Dornan and Rohrabacher over the years. Steinberg and Rohrabacher go back to their days as members of Youth for Goldwater.
Steinberg and other Rohrabacher friends trace their frustration with his Middle East views to a May 2, 2002, vote on a congressional resolution expressing support for Israel and an appearance by Rohrabacher that same day on a cable-television show hosted by conservative commentator Alan Keyes.
The resolution, which expressed solidarity with Israel in its effort to deal with Palestinian terrorism, passed 352-21, with only four Republicans, including Rohrabacher, voting no. Rohrabacher says he voted no because the Bush administration asked congressional leaders not to bring the resolution up at all because it would undermine the Middle East peace process. Rohrabacher made that point on the Keyes show and reiterated his belief that there has been terrorism on both sides.
"I believe Sharon and Arafat are cut out of the same cloth," Rohrabacher told Keyes. "They're both willing to kill noncombatants and have approved it in the past in order to achieve their ends, which is terrorizing the opposition."
Rohrabacher says he stands by that statement. "I was telling the truth," he said.
Orange County Lincoln Club member Howard Klein, also an ally of Dornan and Rohrabacher over the years, said he doesn't believe this issue is likely to be a factor in the primary, even though he, too, is troubled by Rohrabacher's Middle East views. The Lincoln Club has endorsed Rohrabacher and rebuked Dornan for his challenge to a fellow Republican.
"Dana's position on Israel has been well-known for years and it hasn't affected him in the past," said Klein. Another Rohrabacher friend, former state GOP chairman Shawn Steele, says he takes Rohrabacher at his word that he supports Israel.
"He's a complete and unapologetic supporter of the right of the state of Israel to exist," says Steele, who adds that Rohrabacher's area of foreign-policy expertise has always been South Asia, particularly Afghanistan. "Dana has gone out of his way to speak with the Jewish community in his district over the years."
Dornan said it was the Keyes interview that got him thinking about challenging Rohrabacher. He sees support for Israel inextricably linked to the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.
"If Dana had become what I thought he was – a champion of all our allies against terrorism – I would not be running, period," says Dornan.
But Rohrabacher, a senior member of the International Relations Committee, says that for every criticism he levels at Israel, "I have five criticisms of the Palestinians. I'm not trying to walk a middle road. I'm trying to be truthful and honest and be a peacemaker."
Beyond Rohrabacher's comments about Israeli and Palestinian terrorism, Dornan points to the congressman's actions as reason to doubt his support for Israel.
Rohrabacher has made trips over the years to Qatar and Kuwait, traveling through other Arab countries as well. Several of those trips were paid for by the Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation, a Washington-based Muslim outreach group. Rohrabacher and the group's founder, Khaled Saffuri, have been friends for years, meeting when they both were involved in the crisis in Bosnia.
But despite numerous visits to the Middle East, Rohrabacher's first trip to Israel was last May.
Rohrabacher says he hadn't gone to Israel before because he was trying to stay clear of Middle East politics. He says the trips to Qatar and Kuwait were all connected to his attempts to deal with the situation in Afghanistan.
Rohrabacher and Saffuri dismiss assertions by Dornan and Mideast groups that the institute has ties to terrorists. "Dana is pro-American and his views are pro-American," said Saffuri. "I think he is one of the few who has the courage to vote their own conscience. Other Republicans are intimidated by un-American tactics being played now by a racist candidate like Bob Dornan."
The institute's association with Abdurahman Alamoudi, founder of the American Muslim Council, is at the heart of Dornan's argument.
Last December, Alamoudi pleaded not guilty to an 18-count federal indictment alleging that he laundered money and violated immigration and customs laws by accepting $340,000 from the Libyan government.
According to Federal Elections Commission records, Alamoudi gave Rohrabacher $300 in August 1994 and $500 in 1996. Alamoudi also contributed $1,000 each to President George W. Bush and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, in 2000. Both returned the contributions when the allegations against Alamoudi surfaced.
"I'd be happy to return it," Rohrabacher said of the contributions. "I don't even know how to get ahold of him. This was a long time ago, something that's ancient history. When this guy contributed this minuscule amount, he had not done anything overtly or said anything to indicate that he was a bad egg."
Saffuri said that as soon as his organization learned of Alamoudi's views on terrorism, "we cut all ties to Alamoudi." Until the recent revelations, Saffuri said, Alamoudi was considered mainstream by Arab and Jewish organization alike.
Dornan says he's proud that organizations such as Saffuri's "avoided me like I was radioactive" because of his unwavering support for Israel.
"Dana is not dealing with people who want justice for the Palestinians," said Dornan. "He's dealing with people who blow up children and women at prayer in their apartments."
Rohrabacher insists that his comments should not be interpreted to be anti-Israel.
He points to his own legislative staff, which includes a former Israeli Defense Forces officer and an aide to former Rep. Ben Gilman, R-NY, an avid supporter of Israel.
"These people wouldn't be supporting me if I was anti- Israel," Rohrabacher said.
Several key Jewish lobbying groups in Washington declined to talk about Rohrabacher's record, saying privately that they believe he is likely to be re-elected and still hope they can move his views more toward Israel.