SDEROT, Israel — With the Republican presidential nomination virtually assured at home, Sen. John McCain sought to demonstrate his diplomatic acumen in the Middle East on Wednesday by promoting Israeli talks with moderate Palestinian leaders as the best route to peace.
McCain met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. He took a helicopter tour of the country with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. During his two-day visit, McCain paid tribute to Holocaust victims at Yad Vashem and said quiet prayers in Jerusalem at the Western Wall.
The only thing not on McCain's agenda was a meeting with the Palestinian leaders who are central to the peace process. The most that McCain was willing to offer was a courtesy phone call to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"I would have loved that he showed up," said veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "He called the president last night. Maybe one day Palestinians will have money for your campaigns in the United States."
McCain's visit to Israel was part of an official congressional fact-finding trip that included stops in Iraq and Jordan, but the presidential race was never far from people's minds, as Erekat's quip made clear.
With Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., by his side, McCain toured Sderot, the southern Israeli city hardest hit by rocket fire from Palestinian militants in the nearby Gaza Strip.
"It brings more into focus the absolute requirement to pursue the peace process," McCain told reporters at one of the city's community centers. "The peace process must move forward."
Graham said the trip made it more clear to him that the United States should do more to help moderates in the region.
"From a national security point of view, from a moral point of view, I think America needs to help the voices of moderation in the Middle East now more than ever," Graham said.
Asked why he made no time to meet with Abbas, McCain curtly brushed aside the question.
"We had a conversation with him," McCain said. "I have had other meetings with him in the past, and I will have meetings with him in the future."
Instead, McCain spent his time shuttling between Israeli leaders in a move seen by some analysts as an attempt to curry favor with two voting groups in the United States: Democrat-leaning Jewish voters and pro-Israeli evangelical Christians.
In the primary contests so far, Jewish voters in key U.S. states have overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates, primarily Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, whose husband was generally seen as a staunch supporter of Israel.
Jewish support for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama may have been undermined by baseless rumors and suspicions that he harbors too much sympathy for the Palestinians.
In Israel, though, McCain is viewed by many foreign-policy specialists as the best choice, said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.
"Israel is not the first priority when American Jews vote for a candidate," Inbar said. "They have their own agenda, which Israel is only one issue — and not the primary one."
There were no rocket alerts during McCain's visit to Sderot, a city from which thousands of residents have fled because of the constant attacks.
Instead, a fragile calm has taken hold as Israel, with the Bush administration's apparent support, uses Egyptian mediators to hold indirect talks with Hamas leaders in Gaza about an official cease-fire.
McCain said it was up to Israel to decide whether to hold indirect talks with Hamas.
"It's my considered opinion that it is difficult to negotiate with an individual or an organization that's committed to your extinction," McCain said. "But that course of action is entirely up to the state of Israel, and if they decide that that's what they want to do as the elected government, then I would certainly support that."
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed from Jerusalem.)