WASHINGTON — John McCain told an influential Jewish group Monday that the security of Israel and the United States depends on a tough-minded approach to a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, mocking presidential rival Barack Obama's pledge to meet with Iranian leaders.
"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," McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said in a speech to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "Yet it's hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another."
In addition to denying the Holocaust, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and described the predominantly Jewish nation as a "stinking corpse."
McCain also slammed Obama for refusing to support a nonbinding Senate resolution that designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization because it supports killing American troops in Iraq. When McCain quoted Obama as saying that the resolution sent the "wrong message," he held up and wiggled his fingers in mock quotation marks.
In a conference call organized by the Obama campaign, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., dismissed McCain's speech as "nothing different" from the foreign policy of the Bush administration.
"Why should anyone expect (McCain) will have better results than this president has?" Schiff asked. "He continues to cling to a foreign policy that has not made the United States or Israel safer."
Schiff said "direct engagement" such as Obama's call for direct, unconditional meetings with Iranian leaders would be a "productive change in policy."
McCain called for tougher measures that he said would ensure Iran never developed nuclear weapons, which he said would allow it to pose a threat to Israel's existence.
Among his proposals:
_ U.N.-led political and economic sanctions against Iran.
_ An international divestment campaign from companies that do business in Iran.
Schiff noted that Obama has long supported divestment and sanctions as a means of pressuring Iran.
In an era of tight oil supplies and spiraling prices, tougher sanctions and divestment that isolate oil-rich Iran could damage the global economy by leading to even higher prices. Restricting Iranian imports of refined petroleum products, as McCain proposed, also could cause Iran to restrict its exports of unrefined oil, further tightening supply.
Painting Obama as soft on Iran serves McCain's general-election goal of portraying his likely Democratic opponent as too callow and inexperienced for the Oval Office. Doing it at the AIPAC meeting enabled McCain to sow further doubts about Obama among Jewish voters. Jews vote heavily Democratic as a rule; exit polls show that John Kerry won 76 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004 and Al Gore won 79 percent in 2000.
But Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, has had problems with Jewish voters, routinely losing them by wide margins to rival Hillary Clinton. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Clinton won more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls. A recent Gallup poll found Obama leading McCain among Jews by 61 percent to 32 percent, well below the Democratic norm.
Obama's problems stem from the widespread knowledge in the Jewish community of the praise that his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, concern about Obama's willingness to meet with Ahmadinejad and the baseless yet persistent Internet rumor that he's a Muslim.
Obama is scheduled to address AIPAC on Wednesday. It's his third speech in the past month directed at the Jewish community, after one at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and a town hall meeting at a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla.
"It'll be a chance for him to amplify . . . his steadfast commitment to Israel," Schiff said.
By effusively praising Israel and highlighting policy positions of Obama's that could be seen as unfriendly to Israel, McCain hopes that he'll be an attractive alternative for wary Jews.
"We are the most natural of allies," McCain said of Israel and the United States. "And, like Israel itself, that alliance is forever."