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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1996, page 10
Congressman Nick J. Rahall: An Expert on Middle East Affairs
by Shirl McArthur
The hills of southern West Virginia might seem an unlikely breeding ground for a strong defender of the territorial integrity, unity and sovereignty of Lebanon and firm supporter of a just peace in the Middle East, but that is the home of Congressman Nick Rahall. Rahall is a third-generation Lebanese American. His grandfather and namesake, Nicholas, came to the U.S. from Kfier, Lebanon, in 1903, settling in Beckley, WV, where he began a pack-peddling business. Since then, the family has remained in Beckley, where Nick Rahall was born and raised, and has branched out into the retail, real estate, and broadcasting fields. Nick received his B.A. degree from Duke University and worked as a staff assistant to Senator Robert Byrd before his own successful run for Congress in 1976.
Rahall has traveled frequently to Lebanon as well as to Israel and several other countries in the Middle East. Most recently he traveled with congressional delegations to Israel in June 1995, and separately to Lebanon in August 1995. In Lebanon, although he met with President Hrari, Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Sfeir, and other senior government and military officials and businessmen, the high point of his trip was a visit with his son to their ancestral village of Kfier, where he received a hero’s welcome.
A Democrat, Rahall is unopposed in the November elections, and will return for an 11th term representing West Virginia’s third congressional district. We asked him whether he had ever been targeted by the Israeli lobby because of his voting record against foreign aid and his reputation for promoting U.S. interests over those of Israel.
He replied that he couldn’t really say that he had. “For the most part, they recognize that I am of Lebanese descent and that I am proud of it,” he explained. Rahall rarely fails to quote the Lebanese American for whom he had the greatest respect, Danny Thomas, the patron saint of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital: “He who denies his heritage has no heritage.”
Rahall acknowledged, however, that his frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with Arab officials, especially the meetings he held with Yasser Arafat when few others would, have triggered opposition from the American Jewish community. Although there have been contributions to some of his opponents by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s principal lobby in Washington, DC, he considers that to be a legitimate part of our electoral process. “I have Arab-American contributions and I have Jewish-American contributions as well. This is all part of our process today. My main concern is that no member of Congress allow such contributions from any one ethnic group to deter him or her from always acting in America’s best interest first.”
Outdated Travel Ban
Rahall serves as an honorary member on the board of directors of the American Task Force for Lebanon and has been a leader in congressional efforts to get the Clinton administration to lift the travel ban on Lebanon (see “Congress Watch,” p. 20). He points out that while the original intent in the mid-1980s was valid, today the travel ban is outdated. While it is not hurting Lebanon or any other country in the region, it is hurting Americans.
“It’s an American jobs issue, and it makes us a laughing stock in the eyes of the rest of the world,” Rahall said. In his statement to the recent Senate subcommittee hearing on Lebanon, he said that the Lebanese government has committed up to $18 billion toward the reconstruction of its infrastructure. With the travel ban in place, however, Americans will be unable to compete on an equal footing with companies of other countries. He urges the administration to replace the ban with a “travel advisory,” or, at the very least, implement a business waiver for representatives of companies wanting to do business in Lebanon.
Rahall certainly would like to see a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel, as well as between Syria and Israel. However, “the reality is that it is unlikely that we will see one without the other. Regardless of how we feel, that is a fact, so that’s how we have to approach the situation.” In this connection, Rahall is upset that every so-called “message” by either Israel or Syria to the other seems to be sent via their proxies on the territory of southern Lebanon, “with the results being that innocent Lebanese civilians are killed by the hundreds, with very few, if any, casualties among the actual militants.”
For this reason, Rahall believes that any serious proposal for peace in the area must include the removal of all non-Lebanese forces from Lebanon. In August of this year he, along with Congressmen John Dingell (D-MI), Ray LaHood (R-IL), and Martin Hoke (R-OH), submitted a Sense of Congress Resolution calling upon the U.S. government to take immediate steps to restore the territorial integrity of Lebanon (H.CON.RES. 209). Among other actions, the resolution calls for the withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces from Lebanon and urges the administration to deal directly with officials of the government of Lebanon on issues pertaining to Lebanon. H.CON.RES. 209 was not acted on in the 104th Congress, but Rahall plans to re-introduce it early in the next (105th) Congress.
Although most Israelis and many U.S. officials and politicians say that for Israel to give up its “security zone” in southern Lebanon would pose an immediate threat to northern Israel, Rahall has a different perspective. He has spoken with Lebanese army commanders, including General Lahoud, for whom he has high words of praise, and has observed the level of training, professionalism, and discipline of the Lebanese army. “I have the greatest confidence that the Lebanese army can control every inch of Lebanese territory and guarantee no cross-border shelling into Israel, if only given the political go-ahead,” Rahall says.
Although Rahall’s overriding goal is to see a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, he is concerned that some people might consider carving up Lebanon and giving all or parts of it to one or more countries as a “prize” for signing a peace agreement. He recently expressed these concerns personally to President Clinton, who agreed with him and assured him that his administration would not allow this to happen.
Although we question the administration’s winks and nods in the region, we do not question the sincerity of Congressman Rahall’s conviction that preserving the territorial integrity of Lebanon is vital to America’s national interest.