McCain Pledges To Be "Chief Negotiator" In Middle East

Here's a bit of a new angle on Sen. John McCain's policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead of a hands-back approach preferred by President Bush, McCain pledges, in an interview with my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, to be the "chief negotiator" between the two sides from day one. (You'll recall that it took President Bush roughly six years before he decided to become fully engaged -- what ex- U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk has called the "legacy syndrome" that afflicts presidents in their late hours.)

JG: Tell me how engaged you would be as President in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and give me a couple of names of plausible Middle East envoys.

JM: I would have a hands-on approach. I would be the chief negotiator. I have been there for thirty years. I know the leaders, I know them extremely well. Ehud Barak and I have gone back thirty years. I knew Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem. I’ve met many times with Netanyahu. I’ve met with Mahmoud Abbas.

In terms of envoys, there are a large number of people who could be extremely effective, and I apologize for ducking the question, but it would have to be dictated by the state of relations at the time. For example, we know that there were behind-the-scenes conversations Israel was having with Syria. Now it’s broken into the public arena. So it would depend on the state of things. If they were more advanced in talks, which they are not, with Hamas, then you need someone like a mechanic. If it’s someone who needs to lay out a whole framework, it would have to be someone who commands the respect of both sides, someone who has an impact on world opinion.

JG: What is the difference between an American president negotiating with Ahmadinejad and Ehud Olmert negotiating with the Syrians?

JM: You don’t see him sitting down opposite Bashar, do you? (Bashar al-Assad is president of Syria.) I mean, that’s the point here. It was perfectly fine that Ryan Crocker spoke with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad. The point is you don’t give legitimacy by lending prestige of a face-to-face meeting, with no preconditions.

JG: But Obama has shifted off that position.

JM: Sure, and the next time he sees where he’s wrong, maybe he’ll shift again. The point is is that he doesn’t understand. Look, in the primary, he was unequivocal in his statements. And now he realizes that it’s not a smart thing to say. I didn’t say he wasn’t a smart politician.

JG: Do you think that settlements keep Israel and the Palestinians from making peace?

JM: There’s a list of issues that separate them, from water, to the right of return, to settlements. Look at the Oslo Accords, which basically laid out a roadmap for addressing these major issues. And settlements is one of them, but certainly one of the issues right now is the shelling of Sderot, which I visited. As you know, they’re shelling from across the border. If the United States was being rocketed across one of our borders, that would probably gain prominence as an issue.