Congressman Nick Rahall Assesses Impact of Iraq and Israel on U.S. Elections

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On April 21, a week after President George W. Bush's well-choreographed White House meeting with "man of peace" Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Washington Report visited the offices of Congressman Nick Rahall, (D-WV), one of the few straight-talkers on Capitol Hill. President Bush had just reversed longstanding U.S. and international policies regarding Israel's illegal settlements and the Palestinian right of return. To add insult to injury, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the candidate who could capture the "anyone but Bush vote," tried to cut into the dance and outdo Bush's praise of Sharon's "peace plan." What, we asked Rahall, was a conscientious voter to do?

Rahall is a third-generation Lebanese American whose grandfather settled in Beckley, WV in 1903. The future congressman grew up in Beckley, received his B.A. from Duke University, and worked in the retail, real estate, and broadcasting fields. He was staff assistant to the legendary Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) before running for office himself in 1976. At the age of 27, Rahall became the youngest member of the U.S. Congress. Now serving his 14th term in the House of Representatives, Rahall is well-known for his expertise in transportation, infrastructure, energy and environment issues. He has fought for miners' health and safety, as well as for veterans' issues.

Rahall's first visit to the Middle East was in 1980, and he's been going and talking to leaders from all parties there ever since. "I've traveled to the occupied territories many times and I've seen the Palestinians' humiliation and despair," Rahall said. "Someone in the State Department asked me not to go to Ramallah and meet with Chairman Arafat last April. I told him, 'Listen. I've known Arafat since before you were born. I'm going.'"

When asked about U.S. relations with Middle Eastern countries, Rahall cut straight to the chase. "The wars in Iraq and Palestine are definitely intertwined," he said. "Each affects the other. Israel's occupation of Palestine, political assassinations, treatment of prisoners-well, actually, the whole of the Likud Party camp in Israel is reflected in President Bush's policies, statements and actions in both Israel/Palestine and Iraq."

Sharon uses every opportunity to link Israel's war on Palestinians with Bush's war on terrorism, Rahall noted. According to Sharon, terrorism prevents peace negotiations, and he had to build a wall to prevent terrorism. His brutal attacks on the occupied territories and targeted assassinations, he claims, are in response to terrorism. The similarities between the American and Israeli leaders' tactics are uncanny, Rahall said.

The congressman characterized Bush's strategy for re-election as "keep 'em scared and they'll vote Republican." Real terrorists must love it, Rahall said: "Bush is accomplishing their mission for them. He's making us afraid.

"Here we have a U.S. president who cannot answer a single question on any subject without invoking the word 'terror,'" Rahall continued. "That's just what Ariel Sharon has done in his own country."

A good look at Sharon's actions and policies, Rahall added, makes you realize "his only strength is fighting terrorism." He was too much the gentleman to say the same of Bush.

In his talks with Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans supporting either side, Rahall said, he has discovered something quite wonderful: "Middle-of-the-roaders on both sides want peace. They know that everyone loses when the philosophy 'military might is the only right' is followed."

As for Iraq, just before the war Rahall traveled to Baghdad, hoping to convince Iraqi leaders to agree to U.N. weapons inspections and provide unfettered access to every site. "Tareq Aziz accepted all of Bush's demands," Rahall explained. "Bush said the war was not inevitable, but we now know that wasn't true. Iraqis did allow for complete access but Bush's mind was already made up. Iraqis were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. …