SDEROT, Israel (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Wednesday visited an Israeli town hit frequently by Palestinian rockets from the Gaza Strip and voiced doubts a peace deal could be reached this year.
“I am not sure whether it will succeed in that period of time,” McCain said, referring to a U.S.-brokered peace process which Washington hopes will lead to a Palestinian statehood accord before President George W. Bush leaves the White House in January. “But I do believe that the administration is making every possible effort to do so.”
McCain, on what he described as a fact-finding mission to the Middle East, backed Israel’s right to respond to rocket fire against Sderot and other southern towns by Palestinian militants just across the frontier in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
“The fact is that I come from a border state, and if people were rocketing my state, I think that the citizens from my state would advocate a very vigorous response,” the Arizona senator told reporters.
“When one is attacked, one responds and retaliates. One has to respond to attacks.”
He said the Gaza crisis lent urgency to U.S. involvement in trying to end Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians: “We’ve got to have the peace process move forward.”
Earlier, Israeli and Palestinian leaders briefed McCain on prospects for a peace agreement in negotiations launched at a summit in Annapolis, Maryland last November.
“I again believe that President (Mahmoud) Abbas wants to get this (peace) process started,” McCain said in Jerusalem after speaking by telephone to the Palestinian leader, who is based in nearby Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
Abbas briefly suspended talks with Israel after it mounted a Gaza offensive three weeks ago that killed more than 120 Palestinians, about half of whom were identified as civilians. Israel said the raid was aimed at curbing cross-border rockets.
Since troops withdrew, Hamas has largely held its fire as part of what diplomats described as an effort by Egypt to broker a ceasefire. Israel has denied any such deal is imminent.
“There is still no arrangement regarding this issue,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who accompanied McCain to Sderot.
Islamist Hamas, which routed Abbas’s forces to take over Gaza last year, is shunned by the West for preaching the Jewish state’s destruction. It has offered Israel a conditional truce.
McCain said he would support Israel if it chose to talk to Hamas though he said he considered such a prospect “difficult”.
Abbas said there was no alternative to negotiations with Israel, but cautioned that settlement building and Israeli raids in the Gaza Strip and West Bank were holding up progress.
“Therefore we and all the concerned parties have to understand that ... time is short, which means that we have to achieve results for these negotiations by the end of this year,” Abbas told reporters after his conversation with McCain.
McCain, who held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, described Abbas as “committed” to the peace process: “I believe we could conclude negotiations with him ... I hope that he can deliver.”
Olmert described the situation as “very complex” and told McCain: “We are optimistic about negotiations, in spite of what you occasionally read.”
The 71-year-old ex-aviator and Vietnam POW has denied seeking to improve his electoral prospects on a Middle East tour that has also taken him to Iraq. He said he came as a top member of the Senate Armed Services Committee rather than as Bush’s potential successor.
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem and Wafa Amr in Ramallah; Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Elizabeth Piper