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TOM LANTOS, THE LAST SURVIVOR AND MIDDLE EAST PEACE

By       Message R.H. Smith     Permalink
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Every intelligent man and woman in public life with enough depth of character to engender introspection reaches a point where he or she begins to contemplate the Last Hurrah.

By invoking the title of Edwin O'Connor's novel, I don't necessarily mean to call to mind the passing of the Honorable Frank Skeffington. Most politicians do not die in office. But those who pass the point of mid-life still in harness must have moments when they reflect on what it was all about, what they really accomplished, and, if fortunate enough to reach the heights, what might be their historical legacy. Some choose to exit the ring with their integrity intact and the prospect of many pleasant, unharried years ahead; witness global patron saint Albert Gore, Jr. Only a few remain till the very end.

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In fifty days, Congressman Tom Lantos, Chair of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, will be 80 years old. In our rapidly-aging population of Baby Boomers, that's no qualification for the Guinness Book. Were he to be blessed with the longevity of the late Senator Strom Thurmond (a comparison the liberal Gentleman from California might not appreciate) Lantos could have another two decades of active political existence.

But in what capacity - and to what end? That's the question I raised two weeks ago in this column. I now consider it from a different perspective.

I wrote earlier about a primarily political decision: Should Lantos run for a 14th term in Congress, given the likelihood of a strong Primary challenge from another popular progressive Democrat? Or could he put his considerable ability and government experience to more fruitful use in the years ahead?

Today I'll sidestep partisan politics: Whether Lantos does or does not choose to run again, whether or not he wins a coming election - all that is besides the point I now have in mind.

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Today, I'll delve into the realm of futurist fantasy and ask: If he should choose to retire from Congress after 26 years and instead move into the sphere of diplomacy - Could Ambassador Lantos bring peace to the Middle East?

Of course, ambassadorial appointments are the province of the President of the United States. But for fantasy purposes, let's assume that Lantos need hardly lift a finger to win diplomatic distinction from the next Chief Executive.

In a year (thank heavens) we will have a new President. Whether it's Hillary Clinton - who, incidentally, was endorsed by Lantos, he being the first senior California Democratic Member of Congress to do so - or even another Republican, on the day after the election, the President-elect will be faced with a glaring, demanding problem: What is to be done about the Middle East?

For that dilemma, he or she can thank George W. Bush. In attempting to salvage something from the disaster of a pointless war, Bush has grasped at the straw of the best photo-op to come his way since he stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and proclaimed: "Mission Accomplished!"

Perhaps he recalled the image of a smiling Jimmy Carter clasping hands with a jovial Sadat and Begin to announce the Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt. A Peace which endured and won Nobel laurels for its protagonists. So now, 30 years later, we are shown another cheerful trio - Bush, Abbas, Olmert - standing together in apparent photographic harmony, holding out the tenuous promise of Peace between Israel and the Palestinians - "within a year".

Yet within that year, Bush will be packing boxes in the White House, and Olmert and Abbas, too, may be out office. The world will again sigh, "Peace, peace, but there is no peace." And the new American President will be pondering wildly-aroused expectations of what the editors of Time magazine, hardly doomsday alarmists, opined could be the very last Middle East Peace Conference - before World War III.

Enter Ambassador Lantos.

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Born Jewish, but not religious or ritually-observant. Survivor of the Holocaust - one of the greatest historical tragedies of modern history, though at least one Middle East chief of state contends it never happened. Champion of human rights, but, with Cold War preconceptions, sometimes selective about who may be the most deserving victims of oppression. Progressive on almost every domestic political issue, while the most impassioned congressional friend of Israeli belligerents. And more often than not, oblivious of verbal tact.

In short, a man of some contradictions, sometimes too outspoken, haunted by ghosts of his past. And yet a man who could be in the right place at just the right moment for just the right President.

There's an historical hypothesis which argues for the efficacy of "personal diplomacy": That under certain circumstances, the sheer personality of an envoy, a negotiator, a international facilitator, may help cut through the Gordian knot of diplomatic conflict.

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Smith is an historian and public policy consultant.


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