NEW YORK (JTA) – Stability in the Middle East, including Israel, rests on a decisive American victory in Iraq, Republican presidential candidate John McCain told Jewish leaders.
Speaking Tuesday in New York to a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, McCain said the Bush administration had mishandled the war and Americans were understandably frustrated.
The U.S. senator from Arizona warned, however, that the United States cannot withdraw from Iraq. He said a meaningful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is virtually impossible unless the United States scores a decisive victory there.
McCain spoke briefly about Palestinian attacks against Israel and Iranian ambitions in the region – two hot-button issues for many Jewish organizations – but focused nearly all of his talk on the importance of winning in Iraq.
“I believe that all of the situation is connected to Iraq,” he said. “When things are going well it is one thing. When things are going badly it is another thing.”
McCain’s appearance at the conference, an umbrella group widely seen as the Jewish community’s main collective voice on foreign affairs, comes just weeks after he drew criticism for telling the Web site Beliefnet.com that he would probably be most comfortable with a Christian being president.
The senator did not raise the issue during his appearance, which focused on foreign-policy issues, nor did anyone in the audience who asked questions afterward.
Following his talk McCain, who has since said he would vote for a Muslim if that candidate were the most qualified, told a reporter that his Beliefnet comments had been taken out of context.
Recent national polls show McCain, once seen as the front-runner, trailing former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson in the Republican primary race. In Iowa and New Hampshire, polls have former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ahead.
Even as he stood by the war, McCain criticized Bush’s handling of several issues and painted a bleak picture of the region.
“Now of course things are bad,” he said. “We now have a Syrian government that is trying to destabilize the government in southern Lebanon. We have seen Hezbollah being rearmed in southern Lebanon to the point where they are even more capable than they were before the last conflict. We have seen that elections don’t mean democracy; rule of law means democracy.
“And now we have a terrorist organization in Gaza, and as we speak someone is probably lobbing some weapon into Israel, a rocket or something else.”
Among other things, McCain warned, pulling out of Iraq would create a vacuum that would be filled by Iran and inspire radical Islamists all over the region, particularly in Egypt. All these scenarios would threaten Israel, he said.
In the push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, McCain said he favored a step-by-step approach, noting that President Clinton failed in his effort to reach a comprehensive settlement in one fell swoop.
McCain would not outline the first few steps that should be implemented, nor would he give a timeline for how long it should take to forge an agreement. He said possible early steps could include an agreement on water rights or a resolution to the conflict on Israel’s border with Lebanon, which he called a flashpoint.
McCain, who has taken heat in some Jewish circles for an interview with Ha’aretz in which he was interpreted as saying that Israel should return to 1967 borders, was scant as well on details of what a final peace could look like.
The GOP hopeful offered only that Israel would be recognized as a country and have peaceful relations with its neighbors. Llater, in response to a question, McCain told reporters that a deal ultimately would include a Palestinian state, but calm had to be restored first.
“I don’t know how you deal with Hamas when they are dedicated to your extinction,” he said.
“That brings me back to Iraq. If we fail in Iraq, you have chaos and genocide there. Then you are going to have a heck of a time getting any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you believe that the State of Israel will be more secure if the United States fails in Iraq, you and I have a disagreement.”
McCain slammed the Bush administration for failing to cut spending and not acknowledging climate change. The need to fight global warming should have been a centerpiece of a push for energy independence, he said.
“The Bush administration has not recognized that climate change is real, and we need to change our policies,” said McCain, who stressed nuclear energy as the main alternative to oil.
McCain voiced frustration over Russia and China using their vetoes on the U.N. Security Council to thwart American diplomatic efforts to stop genocide in Darfur, and to deal with the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
He suggested that democratic countries form a League of Democratic Nations to enact sanctions against rogue nations, but also made clear that he was not saying America should withdraw from the United Nations.
“We can impose the kind of sanctions that could be very, very impactful on Iran,” he said.
McCain also said he would disinvite Russia from next year’s G-8 summit.