BRUSSELS - Even if it is too soon to anoint him as U.S. President George Bush's successor, Senator John McCain marks a swing in policy from the Republican right to the middle of the map, close to the leading candidates in the Democratic Party. McCain is nearly ready to decide whether to run again in 2008 for the Republican nomination, which he lost in 2000 to George W. Bush. However, as long as he is not a declared candidate, his comments to Haaretz on Saturday, during a weekend break from American politics here in Brussels, reflect the personal opinion of a senior and influential figure in the area of defense policy in the United States Senate, rather than an attempt to formulate policy guidelines for his administration.
The marks of having been wounded and held captivity as a naval combat aviator in Vietnam are clearly evident in his face and his bearing. His military background prepared him for his current profession less than did other experiences, and of his various military duties, he cherishes most of all his year at the National War College, after his release from captivity and prior to his retirement from the military with the rank of navy captain. Yes, captivity also taught him a lot, but then it was clear what his capabilities were and who the enemy was, which is not the case in politics.
McCain does not volunteer his opinions regarding Israel and the Arabs. In a speech of about 3,500 words that he delivered at the Brussels Forum for American-European Relations, Israel was mentioned only as being threatened by Iran. Although he mentioned that the range of Iran's missiles also extends to European capitals, the main and deciding argument for thwarting the Iranian nuclear program - via a military operation, if softer means prove to no avail - is Iran's explicit threat to annihilate Israel. The Pentagon does have plans in its drawer "for every place on the globe," and in the Iranian context, he believes that these plans can be implemented - but only after an assessment is made regarding the second phase of the operation, the counterattack that the Iranians are no doubt planning.
He is as hostile toward the Hamas government as he is toward its patrons in Iran. Financial aid must be kept from Hamas, he says, and action must be taken to isolate it in the international arena. Hamas aspires to topple the government of Jordan by calling for free elections there and to help Hezbollah gain control of Lebanon. What should be done? Moderate Palestinian elements should be encouraged - Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is "a good man, but not the strongest" - but there is no point in an effort to topple the Hamas government, because the organization would likely win again in new elections, for the second time in a row, and this would strengthen it. He expects Israel to do, more or less, what it is doing: "Defend itself and keep evacuating."
As president, McCain would "micromanage" U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because in his opinion, this is still the source of the ferment in the region: Every time an Arab leader wants to provide a distraction, he argues that the problem is due to Israel, and also in the matter of Iran, "we would not have been so concerned" over its nuclear program had it not threatened Israel with extinction. He is fed up with the evasiveness of the Arab states - and most of all with Egypt, which has not given adequate return for the extensive American aid it has received - with regard to helping to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine.
A McCain administration, alongside his close supervision from the White House, would send "the smartest guy I know" to the Middle East. And who is that? "Brent Scowcroft, or Jim Baker, though I know that you in Israel don't like Baker." This is a longing for the administration of the first president Bush, or even for the administration of president Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s. In both of them, general Scowcroft was the national security adviser. McCain will act to bring peace, "but having studied what Clinton did at Camp David, perhaps not in one try, but rather step by step, and I would expect concessions and sacrifices by both sides." In general, a movement toward the June 4, 1967 armistice lines, with minor modifications? McCain nods in the affirmative.
Whoever the next American president is, the overall impression from a conversation with a leading candidate like McCain is that the government of Israel is deluding itself if it believes that "convergence" into "settlement blocs," as opposed to a nearly total withdrawal from the Green Line, will satisfy the next administration. In 2009, it will be a different show: Neither Bush nor settlement blocs.
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