- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

TEL AVIV — Touring an Israeli town battered by daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Sen. John McCain expressed solidarity with the plight of local residents, and he backed Israel’s right to retaliate.

“What this is is a terrible tragedy. The children are subjected to constant terror as well as adults,” he said. “No nation in the world can be attacked, incessantly, and have its population killed and intimidated without responding.”

After surveying houses ravaged by missiles launched by Palestinian militants and rocket shrapnel along with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate said the recent cross-border fighting was all the more reason to resume the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“The peace process needs to continue,” Mr. McCain said at a press conference with Mr. Barak. “There’s a need to get out of this circle of attack and retaliation … especially on this visit here, I urge everyone to move forward on the peace process.”

The Israeli town of Sderot close to the Gaza border has at times absorbed dozens of homemade Qassam rockets a day, causing death, injuries, physical damage, but mostly leaving mental scars. On the day of Mr. McCain’s visit, however, the border with Gaza was quiet.

The trip to Sderot concluded the Middle East leg of Mr. McCain’s trip abroad that started in Iraq, continued to Jordan and then to Israel.

Though he is officially part of a congressional delegation, the Arizona senator has been given a virtual red carpet treatment by the Israeli leadership. In the span of 24 hours, Mr. McCain was hosted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mr. Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Although Israel is a favorite destination for U.S. politicians with big ambitions, few Israelis recall a congressional visit with so much foreign interest.

With Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama locked in an extended race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. McCain has barnstormed the region to grab some of the media spotlight as foreign-policy candidate with a soft spot for Israel.

Mr. McCain spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by phone, but the congressional delegation did not visit the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank.

At a time when Israelis are questioning whether the Palestinian government in the West Bank led by Mr. Abbas is strong enough to make good on a treaty, Mr. McCain praised Mr. Abbas’ commitment to the peace process and gave the Palestinian leader a vote of confidence as a partner for an agreement.

“I view his attitude as one of sincerity, and I believe that we could conclude negotiations with them,” he said.

Though he characterized the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip as “committed” to the extermination of Israel, Mr. McCain said he would not stand in the way of a decision by the Jewish state to negotiate with the Islamist militants.

The comment came amid a flurry of reports that Israel and Hamas are conducting indirect talks on a formal cease-fire and to open up border passages in Gaza using Egypt as a mediator.

Mr. McCain is accompanied on the trip by Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

In between official meetings in Jerusalem, the team visited the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem’s Old City. A phalanx of reporters and cameramen jostled with border policemen to get a glimpse of Mr. McCain placing a message in between the massive Herodian-era stones that formed the retaining wall of the ancient Israelite Temple.

Later in the afternoon, the senators flew by helicopter with Mr. Barak to Sderot. The trip stirred up memories of the helicopter tour given by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when the former Texas governor, George W. Bush, visited Israel — a ride that many point to as the foundation of the close working ties between the two leaders.

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