WASHINGTON, June 21 (JTA) Just as he is emerging as one of President Bush’s most persistent policy critics within the Republican Party, Sen. John McCain is proposing a future for Israelis and Palestinians that differs from the administration’s Mideast policy.
McCain (R-Ariz.), who lost to Bush in the Republican presidential primaries last year, used an appearance at a forum for Washington interns Wednesday to advocate separation between Israelis and Palestinians and to urge increased American participation in the peace process.
“We’re going to have to figure out ways for Israelis and Palestinians to live apart,” McCain said.
He also questioned how feasible it is for Israeli settlers to remain in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and said that the borders separating Israelis and Palestinians should be built up.
“I’m not sure that over time, living under the constant state of siege is something that is sustainable,” McCain said.
The senator received a hero’s welcome from more than 500 Washington interns and young professionals on Capitol Hill at an event sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. His backing for a strong American-Israeli alliance drew thunderous applause.
“The United States has to be engaged,” McCain said. “We have to signal that we are going to be as involved as we have to be.”
While not directly calling on Israel to separate unilaterally from the Palestinians, McCain hinted that attempts to create peaceful co-existence between the two nations are futile.
McCain’s viewpoint contrasts sharply with that of the Bush administration, which recently has become more actively engaged in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
McCain’s comments came just hours after the White House announced that Secretary of State Colin Powell would travel to the Mideast next week trying to shore up the cease-fire the two sides accepted earlier this month.
Unilateral separation originally was proposed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak when peace talks with the Palestinian Authority appeared to have hit a dead end. The idea was resurrected recently in Israel after a suicide bombing June 1 in Tel Aviv killed 21 Israelis.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not endorsed the idea, and opponents say building a fence between Israelis and Palestinians is not feasible. Sharon favors a larger “security zone” that would include trenches, and detection devices.
Few American leaders have backed the separation approach. Afterward, McCain denied that his take on the situation differs from current U.S. policy.
“This is neither new nor revolutionary,” he told JTA. “We have to separate the warring parties.”
McCain hit many of the talking points AIPAC has been advocating in recent weeks. He called for an end to Palestinian textbooks that promote the destruction of Israel and noted that the American embassy in Israel should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a promise Bush made during his campaign but recently postponed for reasons of national security.
Although he urged unconditional American support for “that brave little nation,” McCain said he was wary of Israel’s use of American-made F16 war planes, which are sold with the provision that they be used only for defensive purposes.
McCain has built up a large following among young people since his unsuccessful run for the presidency, a group he refers to as the “McCainiacs.” Rumors persist that he will run again for president one day.
That proposition, and McCain’s personal style, seemed to resonate with the young crowd, with audience members shouting “Run again” and “2004.”
“It was a gutsy thing to say,” said Matthew Smith, 21, of Buffalo, an intern for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It takes someone like McCain to say something that everyone else is beating around the bush about.”
Other interns said they were intrigued by the honesty of McCain’s comments.
“I was really surprised,” said Josh Lockman, 19, an AIPAC intern from Los Angeles. “I didn’t expect him to be as supportive and pro-Israel as he demonstrated.”
McCain joked often about his failed presidential bid, noting that with several Arizona lawmakers now having lost presidential races, his state is the only place “where mothers don’t tell their children they can become president.”