Senator McCain gave the keynote address at yesterday's opening of the annual AIPAC Conference and promised that the same vision of perpetual warfare served up by Bush, and offered as an option to Americans in November, would also be available to his Israeli friends were he to become the next occupant of the White House. If I may speak for a moment from my Israeli perspective--I found the enthusiastic response to the unappetizing fare proffered by McCain, while not surprising, thoroughly distasteful. The speech of the Republican presidential hopeful was so utterly devoid of anything positive for the future, that he even managed to find precious little to say about Israel's achievements of the past 60 years (yes I am all too aware of Israel's shortcomings, but given the occasion, one would have at least expected an uplifting take on the positive side of the Israel story--but then McCain does not do uplifting). What was most remarkable though was how shallow and devoid of context McCain's understanding of the region proved to be. He is indeed positioning himself as the true inheritor of the neoconservative mantle.
McCain's speech ran to just under 3000 words. Exactly half of that was devoted to Iran and Iraq. If one removes the tops and tails--his flowery references to visiting Israel, the obligatory name check to his buddy Senator Lieberman, and reference to Henry "Scoop" Jackson (a none-too-subtle bow to the neocons), then just 725 words of that speech remained for such trivialities as Israel's relations with its neighbors, al-Qaeda, the Gulf, etc.; not surprising then that these barely got a mention.
In McCain's world the Middle East is reduced to Iran, Iraq and some terrorists running around in Gaza and Lebanon. Egypt and Jordan, the two neighbors with which Israel has formal peace treaties, and the anchors for Israel's acceptance and peaceful existence in the region, did not merit a single mention. Likewise Saudi Arabia, or any of the Gulf States with whom Israel is keen to formalize links, who were even present at the Annapolis conference and who have mobilized a platform for regional acceptance of Israel in the Saudi Initiative. McCain ain't interested. On the Saudis and the Gulf--nada.
Israel has just launched Turkish mediated proximity talks with Syria. But in a display of McSameness, McCain refused to welcome or refer to these negotiations. He quite simply snubbed the government of Israel and the leadership of its defense establishment, who are strongly behind these peace talks (by the way the Turks, who are brokering these talks, who now have a key regional role, also don't exist in McCain's Middle East).
Peace and the peace-process were at best a footnote coexisting uneasily with the overarching themes of scare mongering, terror, and fear. The best McCain could manage on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was this:
Yet while we encourage this process we must also insure that Israel's people can live in safety until there is a Palestinian leadership willing and able to deliver peace.
The Israeli government views the current Palestinian leadership as a peace partner; McCain--not so much.
Finally, in terms of omissions, McCain barely mentioned al-Qaeda--doing so only briefly in the Iraq context. What this ignored is the reality whereby the Iraq War, McCain's pet project, has brought al-Qaeda perilously close to Israel's doorstep. Since al-Qaeda was able to establish an operating base in American-occupied Iraq, it has carried out attacks in the Jordanian capital Amman, in the Egyptian Sinai, and apparently has a presence in the refugee camps in Lebanon and perhaps even in Gaza--all literally Israel's doorstep. No word though from McCain to AIPAC on how he might address this, except more of the same.
So what of the subjects he did talk about--Iran and Iraq primarily?
On Iran, McCain parrots the positions of that wing of the Bush administration least troubled by reality. He slammed the door shut on diplomacy:
We hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before...
And suggests more of the ramped-up sanctions and threats that have served to bolster the hardliners in Tehran and whatever nuclear ambitions they have. In doing so, he even rejects the positions recently voiced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus advocating that US policy create the conditions for constructive engagement with Iran. That puts McCain way out of touch with US public opinion, 59% of which says that "the US President should meet with the President of Iran".
In a snub to 60s music fans, McCain offered no rendition of his cover of the Beach Boy's classic "Barbara Ann", and notably did not sign up to the naval blockade of Iran recently suggested by some senior Israeli officials.
Not to worry--the Arizona Senator did offer a chestnut when suggesting a possible dialogue with Iran would achieve nothing more than an "earful of anti-Semitic rants and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and who talks about starting...another". Then again, McCain hardly needs to travel to Tehran for that; he could simply resume his alliance with Pastor John Hagee, either directly or via Joe Lieberman, who has refused to sever his links with the Jew-baiting head of CUFI [for the latest on Hagee's mad rantings, read Max Blumenthal in Huffington Post, which MJ Rosenberg follows up on here at TPM; and for the Lieberman-Hagee love-in, and petition against, see J Street here].
McCain's Iraq shtick is all too well rehearsed to merit comment, suffice it to say that whatever encouragement certain friends of Israel in the US may have given the war, the consequences to date have been nothing short of disastrous to Israel's strategic security interests.
That most of the crowd loved the speech is a sad reflection on AIPAC, and that it is reaping what it has sown in moving so aggressively to the right in recent years. According to reports in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, and the Jewish Forward, AIPAC even had to send a note out to its members asking them not to misbehave at the conference; in effect shorthand for please don't boo the Democrats--they might be important next year. There was an interesting piece in today's Jerusalem Post ("Is AIPAC showing some cracks?") that reminds us that even in the early 1990s, Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin was blasting AIPAC for "causing damage to Israel".
The enthusiastic AIPAC embrace of the neoconservative agenda during the Bush years was to be expected, but that still does not make it any less of a strategic blunder. And this year's AIPAC conference is unfortunately full of the same cast of characters that have spearheaded that dangerously misguided alliance. To name but a very few: from the Sheldon Adelson-funded Shalem Institute in Israel--Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, and Martin Kramer; from the uber-righist policy world--AEI's Daniel Pletka; Walid Phares and Tony Karan of the FDD; Ilan Berman from the Committee on the Present Danger; and Jonathan Shantzer, formerly of Campus Watch.
And of course, despite everything, AIPAC will still be giving a platform to CUFI, including Gary Bauer, and one that will be reciprocated at CUFI's D.C. Summit next month. It should come as no surprise that the 2 House members who will speak at CUFI are among a handful of those speaking at AIPAC--Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN). Courageous Congresswoman Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) made the call on CUFI and refused to cooperate with them long ago, AIPAC has still not learned the lesson.
Based on this speech, McCain is determined to continue his failed Bush policies in the Middle East, and then some. As for AIPAC, it could still come to its senses and cut the umbilical cord to the right, the neocons, and the dispensationalist Evangelical Zionists. On conference day 1, the signs are not good.