Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday defended his support of Israel's military action against Hamas, a day after he met privately with local Muslim leaders who had criticized him as being one-sided and ill-equipped to wade into the complex Middle East conflict.
At a rally outside the Israeli Consulate earlier this week, Villaraigosa said Israel had the "right and responsibility to defend itself" from the rocket attacks being launched from the Gaza Strip.
Muslim organizations argued that the mayor should have spoken just as strongly on behalf of innocent Palestinians killed and wounded by the Israeli attacks.
The uproar, while expected to be short-lived, again revealed how events elsewhere in the world can cause political tremors in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, home to some of the nation's largest Jewish and Arab populations.
But Villaraigosa's strong and vocal support for Israel, a country he has visited three times, including a trip last summer, has helped solidify his support among the Jewish voters who helped elect him mayor in 2005.
At the same time, Jewish interest groups have been careful to cultivate ties to Latino politicians as their political influence and the number of new Latino voters grows. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca this week said he would soon travel to the Middle East to observe the situation.
"It's occurring on a variety of political plateaus," said Steven Windmueller, professor of Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. "And the expectation exists the candidates that they support . . . will embrace the causes they believe in."
Villaraigosa spent part of his childhood in Boyle Heights, which was once predominantly Jewish, and he often visits synagogues on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. The mayor also has been a fixture at some of the city's biggest Jewish events and pro-Israel rallies.
Local Muslim leaders worry that those strong ties, and his travels to Israel, have clouded Villaraigosa's perspective on the latest conflict and the plight of the Palestinians. They urged him to be just as active in the Muslim community.
"There's no objection to the mayor having his personal views, but as the mayor of one of the most diverse cities in the nation, he has the responsibility to engage in activities that bring all Angelenos together," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of California based in Anaheim. "His role is not to be a cheerleader for one side . . . He ought to be on the side of justice and peace."
Ayloush was one of a handful of Muslim leaders who met with Villaraigosa on Wednesday to discuss their concerns over the mayor's comments supporting Israel's recent military action in the Gaza Strip. He said the conversation was cordial and frank.
"The mayor needs to demonstrate his sensitivity to the suffering of the Palestinians. This is what the mayor said he would do, and we'll hold him accountable for that," said Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
During the meeting, Villaraigosa strongly defended Israel's right to respond to the hundreds of rockets Hamas has fired into the country. He also agreed with the Muslim leaders that there should be a cease-fire and that Israel should not disrupt humanitarian aid from entering the Gaza Strip.
More than 750 Palestinians and 11 Israelis have been killed since the start of the offensive, that Israel says is aimed at ending Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Villaraigosa on Thursday dismissed any speculation that his comments at the pro-Israel rally were orchestrated to score political points with Jewish voters in Los Angeles. Given the subsequent criticism he's received, the safest political move would have been to keep quiet, he said.
"I've been to Israel three times. . . . I've seen first-hand a threat from extremists to deny the right of Israel to exist," the mayor said. "Israel has . . . the right to exist and the right to defend itself against the terror posed by Hamas and Hezbollah and any other terrorist force."
In June, when Villaraigosa led a contingent of Los Angeles city and community leaders on a week-long trip in Israel, he visited Sderot, a town near the Gaza border that has faced repeated rocket attacks by Hamas.
Two of the mayor's children joined him on the trip, even after a barrage of rockets had been fired at the town the day before. Villaraigosa was visibly concerned for their safety, said Nur Amersi of the Afghanistan World Foundation in Los Angeles, who was a Muslim representative on the visit.
"He was experiencing what the children there were going through. . . . He was worried about his own children," said Amersi, adding that during the trip, Villaraigosa had urged Israel's top leaders to strive for peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. "He understood there needs to be some type of resolution."