Analyze This: Why 'maverick' McCain is likely to follow consensus when it comes to Israel policy

Regarding Israel, he doesn't oppose party's conservative base.

mccain 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
mccain 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Thursday night in Washington, Sen. John McCain was scheduled to face perhaps the toughest crowd he had yet addressed during his campaign to secure the Republican nomination for president. That this audience consisted of young conservative activists who form the bedrock of the GOP's ideological base highlights the strange nature of this year's Republican nomination contest, in which McCain is now all-but unstoppable. His appearance at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee convention - which he conspicuously missed last year - was billed as a chance for the front-runner to mend fences with the right-wing activists that the "maverick" top-gun-turned-politician has antagonized over the years with his unorthodox stands on certain matters of key importance to this constituency. Among the hot-button topics that conservative pundits urged McCain to address in a constructive bridge-building manner with the CPAC audience were illegal-immigration amnesty, stem cell research, campaign finance laws, the use of torture in terrorist interrogations, etc. - issues on which the Arizona senator has taken stands at odds with many of the leading voices of influence within his party, including hugely popular talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh. One area where McCain was not expected to have any problems with the CPAC crowd was Middle East policy. If anything, the opposite; his strong backing for the US military mission in Iraq, especially his early and unstinting support for the Bush administration's troop surge, has been perhaps his one major advantage over his rivals in the quest for the Republican presidential nomination. The revival of McCain's political fortunes, which seemed especially dim last summer, has been directly tied to the surge's success in dampening the violence in Iraq. Indeed, way back in the summer of 2003, when "mission accomplished" seemed to still be the mantra of the Bush administration, and the Iraqi violence was at a manageable level, McCain met with the senior editors of this newspaper after coming directly to Jerusalem from Baghdad, and presciently warned that the US forces were roughly two divisions short (20,000-30,000 troops) needed to maintain order there. When it comes to Israel in general, McCain also has no real problem with his party's conservative base. He has been a strong, steady supporter of the Jewish State whose views on the strategic relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, as well as on how to advance the peace process, fall well within the Republican mainstream. McCain expressed his outlook on this subject in an article published in Foreign Affairs two months ago: "In view of the increased threats to Israel - from Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and others - the next US president must continue America's long-standing support for Israel, including by providing needed military equipment and technology and ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge. The long-elusive quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians must remain a priority. But the goal must be genuine peace, and so Hamas must be isolated even as the United States intensifies its commitment to finding an enduring settlement." But that was all McCain had to say on the topic in the piece, and filling in the blanks on just exactly how much a "priority" arriving at an Israeli-Palestinian peace would be in his administration will no doubt increasingly occupy the minds of Israel's US supporters in the coming months, as McCain comes ever closer to securing the nomination, and possibly the presidency. For many on the Right, especially the so-called Jewish neo-conservatives, a US administration that dedicates itself too fervently, and involves itself too directly in a negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians, is bound to end up pressuring Jerusalem to make concessions on such matters as West Bank settlements and tough security measures that impact on the general Palestinian population. This is the path the current Republican administration has followed in recent months, and one that fits less with the neo-conservative outlook evident in the early years of the Bush White House, and more with the mainstream of US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict over the past two decades. While McCain may well be a maverick in other areas, when it comes to Israel and its Arab neighbors there is little in his past to indicate he would follow any deviant solo course in his handling of the situation here. The senator himself has cited such GOP establishment figures as former secretary of state James Baker and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft as potential Middle East advisers, despite the concerns they arouse among Israel's right-wing supporters in his own camp. Jewish Republicans, in expressing support for McCain, have understandably emphasized his determination to pursue the fight against radical Islamic terror, and a war-hero status that makes him better qualified to ask the American people for the kind of sacrifices needed to pursue that struggle over the long haul than any of his Republican rivals, or possible Democratic opponents (or for that matter, the current occupant of the White House). And surely when it comes dealing with the Iranian regime, McCain boasts stronger and more reassuring security credentials for anyone who truly believes that Teheran's nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel that will ultimately require strong American leadership to resolve. Yet just as it was the situation in Iraq that finally pushed the Bush administration to invest so much of its efforts toward reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, so may McCain's unshakable resolve to continue that mission and even expand it further out in the region, keep him on the same course. It should also be remembered that in recent years it is Republican administrations that have often broken new diplomatic ground in Washington's stands on the peace process; it was Ronald Reagan who authorized the first official US contacts with the PLO; George H.W. Bush who first tied American aid to Israel directly to the building of settlements; and of course George W. Bush who committed the US to reaching agreement on a two-state solution by a set deadline. Thus while John "straight-talk" McCain should be taken at his word on his support for Israel's security and his determination to confront the global jihadist threat - so too his commitment to finish the work the Bush administration has started so belatedly in attaining a two-state solution in the near future. That latter point may be yet another unsettling prospect for McCain's critics on the hard-line Republican Right, who would have been more comfortable with the likes of Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson or even Rudy Giuliani as their standard-bearer, including in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But with the maverick flying high in the primaries, they will have to either make their peace with McCain on this and other issues, or risk losing the White House to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama come November. [email protected]