McCain's Holy Land Pilgrimage

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain visits the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City, March 19, 2008.

John McCain, the Arizona Senator and Republican Presidential hopeful, was doing his best to look statesmanlike during a tour of Jerusalem's Western Wall, but it wasn't easy. As McCain approached Judaism's holiest site, a Rabbi in a Moses-like beard, all draped in flowing white robes — a publicity-seeker posing as soothsayer — called out: "Ladies and Gentlemen, John McCain, the next President of the United States." Meanwhile, a cheeky kid had wormed his way into the media mob, held up his camera-cellphone to McCain and yelled: "Say cheese."

On his way out, weaving past Japanese tourists having their photos snapped with Israeli soldier girls, McCain was accosted by a gaunt, Jewish ex-settler, one of 7,000 removed from Gaza in 2005, who pleaded with the Senator for money since he wasn't getting any from the Israeli government. He was quickly pushed away by McCain's American and Israeli security guards.

Israel is just one stop on the future Republican candidate's tour as part of the Senate Armed Services Committee. After Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — and to the chagrin of the Palestinians, only spoke on the telephone to President Mahmoud Abbas — he flies on to the United Kingdom and France.

But a stopover in Israel suits McCain politically. His pro-Israel stance, which he has long maintained, is bound to help his electoral prospects back home with American Jews and, more crucially, with Evangelical Christians who are a large part of the Republican party base, and who, until now, have regarded the twice-married McCain as too liberal and hard to pigeonhole. A recent Pew Poll says that 65% of Evangelicals believe that the state of Israel fulfills a biblical prophecy about Jesus' Second Coming.

When it comes to voting, these right-wing Christians will probably cast their ballot depending on other factors — a candidate's views on the failing economy or the Iraq war — but McCain's support of Israel may tip the balanced in his favor. Recently, McCain sought and obtained a controversial endorsement from Texas televangelist, Pastor John Hagee, a key figure in the Christian Zionist movement backing Israel and its expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories. Hagee is instrumental in drumming up funds and political support in Washington for Israel.

McCain pleased his Israeli hosts by pledging support, if elected President, to help Israel in its struggle against Islamic militants Hamas and Hizballah and Iran. "If Hamas and Hizballah succeed here, they are going to succeed everywhere," McCain told reporters after meeting with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni. "They are dedicated to the extinction of everything that the U.S., Israel and the West believe and stand for." He also met President Shimon Peres and was supposed to tour Sderot, a southern Israeli town often targeted by rockets from Gaza militants.

Accompanied by two other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Independent Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut (a possible McCain V.P. candidate), and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina — McCain visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum on Tuesday where he wrote in the guestbook: "I am deeply moved. Never again."

Many right-wing Israelis see Iran as posing an existential threat to the Jewish state, and they embrace McCain's hawkish "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" stance. But as Yossi Beilin, a leftwing politician, told reporters: "A real friend [of Israel] is someone who will make an effort to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question is if McCain is that guy."