JERUSALEM (JTA) – Wearing a white knitted kipah, U.S. Sen. John McCain stood at the Western Wall, tucked a note inside one of its crevices and pressed his hand on the ancient stone, striking an image meant to speak to American Jewish voters across the sea that he is indeed their man.
McCain, the Arizona senator who is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, spoke Wednesday of his “deep and abiding commitment to Israel” – a theme he stressed throughout his meetings this week with Israeli leaders.
Sounding a note of commonality and understanding with his Israeli hosts, McCain said that Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah were threats not only to Israel, but to America as well.
“Iran is funding, training and aiding extremist groups,” McCain told Israeli President Shimon Peres. “My concern over this issue has increased following my current tour of the Middle East.”
McCain also said it would be difficult for Israel to talk to Hamas about a cease-fire in Gaza.
Although billed as a congressional fact-finding mission with fellow Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both major McCain supporters, McCain’s visit to Israel felt more like a campaign stop.
It served as a place for dramatic photo opportunities and a venue to talk tough on foreign policy, which McCain is plugging as his forte in the race. Before arriving in Israel, the delegation visited Iraq and Jordan.
In Israel, McCain made clear that like Bush and Olmert, he is sticking to the strategy that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should be cultivated as a peace partner.
McCain told Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during their meeting that in a phone conversation Tuesday, Abbas said he also is disturbed by the rocket fire from Gaza.
“I again believe that President Abbas wants to get this process started,” McCain said. “I believe that he does not support the kind of activity that is taking place in Gaza.”
Israelis are debating whether or not it’s worth talking to Hamas to achieve a cease-fire that would end the cross-border rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. McCain said he would be wary of negotiating with a group like Hamas.
“It is my considered opinion that it is difficult to negotiate with an individual or an organization that is committed to your extinction,” he said.
On his visit, McCain saw firsthand the toll that Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip has taken on the southern Israeli city of Sderot. He toured a house that was badly damaged by a rocket, and was shown a pile of singed and mangled Kassam rockets collected by Sderot police.
”That is not a way for people to live,” McCain said during his tour of Sderot. ”No nation in the world can be attacked incessantly and have its population killed and intimidated without responding. That’s one of the first obligations of government, to provide security for its citizens.”
The senator said that if rockets were to hit his home state of Arizona, residents certainly would demand a harsh response.
“Seeing firsthand the situation here is one that’s very compelling,” he said. “Nine hundred rocket attacks in less than three months, an average of one every two hours. Obviously this puts an enormous and hard-to-understand strain on the people here.”
He said the violence “brings more into focus the absolute requirement to pursue the peace process.”
Lieberman served on the trip as something of a cultural guide for McCain. The Connecticut lawmaker provided McCain the kipah he wore at the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and explained the holiday of Purim when they were met by children in costumes.
It was also Lieberman who whispered into McCain’s ear in Jordan on Tuesday, correcting McCain when he stumbled in suggesting that Iran, a Shi’ite nation, was training the Sunni terrorist group al-Qaida.
McCain seemed on more certain footing in Israel trying to project the image of a statesman. On Wednesday he had lunch with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then joined Defense Minister Ehud Barak for a helicopter tour of the country.
The tour recalled a similar flight taken by then-presidential hopeful George W. Bush with then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in 1998 in which Sharon demonstrated the great security challenges facing Israel given its small size.
Both men later became leaders of their countries, and the helicopter tour often is cited as a key element in securing Bush’s strong support for Israeli security.
Perhaps the most raucous part of McCain’s trip came when he departed the Western Wall and was swarmed by throngs of photographers, tourists and well-wishers, some of whom shouted out greetings to “the future president.”
As photographers and cameramen surged to get closer to McCain, they were pushed back by Israeli border policemen. Several fistfights ensued.
The scene at the holiest site in Judaism may have offered McCain a glimpse of the rough-and-tumble energy in the region, which offered a stark contrast to the series of warm but sedate rounds of visits he held with Israeli officialdom.
After Israel, McCain was scheduled to visit London and Paris.