McCain visits besieged town

Times Staff Writer

Like a candidate canvassing the neighborhood, Sen. John McCain paid a call on the Amar family Wednesday in their yellow stone house on Sinai Street.

“He came in, shook hands, talked at eye level and was not condescending,” Aliza Amar said. “He walked in with simplicity, as if he lives around here.”

He doesn’t. The all-but-certain Republican nominee for the White House stopped in Israel during a seven-day overseas trip to affirm his friendship with the Jewish state and his solidarity with its most besieged citizens.

McCain was led to the Amars’ modest home because part of its tile roof had been blown off by a Palestinian rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Dec. 13. Amar, 40, a mother of four, told him how the blast had knocked her from her wheelchair and pierced her knee with shrapnel.

Other townspeople told him of the trauma caused by the more than 1,000 rockets fired in or around this desert town near the Gaza border since that day.


Speaking to reporters later at Sderot’s community center, McCain called the barrage “a terrible tragedy” and said his tour of the town with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had helped him understand the severity of Israel’s much-criticized military incursions into Gaza.

Thirteen Israelis have been killed in the last seven years by the crude, wildly inaccurate Kassam rockets. But the frequency of the attacks “puts an enormous strain on people here,” McCain said, noting that the town’s alert system gives residents about 15 seconds to run for cover.

“That is not a way for people to live,” he said. “No nation in the world can be attacked incessantly and have its population killed and intimidated without responding.”

Officially, the Arizona senator is touring the Middle East and Europe on a fact-finding trip along with two fellow members of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

But McCain’s appearances at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, at the Western Wall and in Sderot seemed tailored to appeal to American Jewish voters. The first two venues have long been traditional photo-op stops for U.S. presidential candidates visiting Israel.

Sderot has not been.

But the town’s plight is becoming a cause celebre in the United States among Jews and others attentive to the threat posed by the Islamic group Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other militant groups that advocate Israel’s destruction.

For these voters, “McCain’s visit is a meaningful gesture, taken at some personal risk,” said Eran Lerman, who directs the Israel office of the American Jewish Committee. “It speaks to people in the American Jewish community and beyond who support the Bush administration’s peace efforts, but are increasingly frustrated by what is happening to Sderot and by the constant advice to Israel to accept this and show restraint in Gaza.”

Like Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who are vying to become his Democratic rival for the presidency, McCain endorses the peace talks President Bush helped revive in November between Israel and Hamas’ secular rival, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas.

In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, McCain said he would “personally be engaged” in peace talks if elected and “give it my highest priority.”

McCain did not balance his remarks on the rocket fire by publicly cautioning Israel, as Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have done, against excessive force in Gaza. Many civilians were among more than 120 Palestinians killed in an Israeli ground and air assault there this month.

“I come from a border state, and if people were rocketing my state, I think that the citizens from my state would advocate a very vigorous response,” McCain said.

Nor did he balance his visit to Israel with one to the West Bank. Instead, he telephoned Abbas from Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said McCain’s absence from the West Bank was understandable, given the realities of American politics. “Maybe one day Palestinians will have money for your campaigns in the United States,” he said.

The senator long has been a steadfast supporter of Israel. Israelis, who have often chosen war heroes as their political leaders, admire the former Vietnam POW’s military record.

Many Israelis believe that his willingness to keep U.S. forces in Iraq makes him more likely than Clinton or Obama to act decisively to prevent Iran, Israel’s most feared foe, from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Israelis also look favorably on Clinton, associating her with the warm relationship her husband, former President Clinton, forged with their country during his administration. They view Obama with more skepticism, citing his willingness to meet with Iran’s president -- a position not shared by Clinton or McCain.

The newspaper Haaretz periodically ranks the candidates on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “best for Israel.” The latest rating by its panel of eight experts gave McCain 7.75 points, Clinton 7.5 and Obama 5.12.

“As far as Israel is concerned, and in the view of the candidates’ current positions, no one is better than McCain,” Haaretz columnist Amir Oren wrote this week.

But Gershom Gorenberg, a dovish author and online columnist, said a more hawkish candidate was not necessarily better for Israel.

“A pro-Israel policy does not mean refusal to talk to Iran,” he wrote. “An Iranian bomb is certainly a serious danger to Israel, but refusing to negotiate with Tehran means giving up in advance on possible ways to reduce the threat.”