(August 27, 2018 / JNS) U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) died on Aug. 25 at the age of 81. He was a Vietnam War hero, a two-time presidential candidate and a 35-year member of Congress.
A longtime friend of the State of Israel, McCain visited countless times. His first visit came in 1979, when he traveled with Washington Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who “had the special respect of the Jewish people—the kind of respect accorded to brave and faithful friends,” McCain said in 2008 in front of the annual American Israel Political Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference.
McCain took Jackson’s mantle and never looked back.
“My friends, as the people of Israel know better than most, the safety of free people can never be taken for granted,” McCain said at the conference. “And in a world full of dangers, Israel and the United States must always stand together.”
In July 2017, after McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Godspeed, @SenJohnMcCain. A hero. A fighter. A friend. Israel is with you.”
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of John McCain, a great American patriot and a great supporter of Israel. I will always treasure the constant friendship he showed to the people of Israel and to me personally,” Netanyahu posted on Twitter on Sunday. “His support for Israel never waivered [sic]. It sprang from his belief in democracy and freedom. The State of Israel salutes John McCain.”
McCain blasted Israel’s treatment under the administration of former President Barack Obama—whom McCain lost to in 2008 as the Republican presidential nominee—and foresaw what would become a nuclear deal with Iran that he, along with many others, spoke out against supporting.
“There’s a real crisis going on. And that is these negotiations with Iran, which many of us believe are fatally flawed,” McCain told CNN ahead of Netanyahu’s visit to the United States in March 2015, which Obama boycotted, including the prime minister’s joint address to Congress, warning about the dangers of a nuclear Iran.
Regarding the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, McCain did not mince words.
“It’s poor, as we know,” he said in the CNN interview. “It’s the worst that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and that in itself is a tragedy because it’s the only functioning democracy in the entire Middle East.”
“I think [it’s] because the president had very unreal expectations about the degree of cooperation that he would get from Israel, particularly on the Palestinian issue, as well as the nuclear issue with Iran,” he added. “No other president has had such difficult relations with the State of Israel since it became a country.”
The previous year, McCain stood with Israel’s military against Hamas launching rockets from Gaza into Israel. “It’s a matter of capabilities, rather than intent, to say the least,” he said, pushing back on the narrative of more deaths among Palestinians than Israelis.
McCain continued that the lower number of Israeli casualties is because of the “Iron Dome, which is an Israeli-U.S. cooperation result, [not because] Hamas, a terrorist organization, hasn’t tried.”
In fact, the senator added, Hamas is “indiscriminately targeting civilians, while Israelis are going so far to warning the people in Gaza of impending strikes. There’s a dramatic difference here.”
Additionally, McCain blasted the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 in 2016, which condemned Israeli neighborhood building in the West Bank activity. He said the U.S. decision to not veto the resolution made America “complicit in this outrageous attack” against Israel.
“I did not support the nuclear deal at the time it was proposed, and many of its specific terms will make it harder to pursue the comprehensive strategy we need,” he said in October 2017. “In that sense, I agree with the president that the deal is not in the vital national interests of the United States.”
However, McCain gave a lukewarm response to Trump relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“I have long believed that Jerusalem is the true capital of Israel. However, issues surrounding the final and permanent status of Jerusalem must ultimately be resolved by Israelis and Palestinians as part of an internationally supported peace process,” McCain said. “Any future relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem should be part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy in coordination with regional partners to achieve peace and security between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Friendship with Joe Lieberman: ‘The finest man I have ever known in my life’
McCain’s support for Israel encompassed his lifelong friendship with former Connecticut Democratic-turned-Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, whom McCain regretted not picking as his running mate in 2008, according to McCain’s new book. McCain called Lieberman “the finest man I have ever known in my life.”
In front of the 2014 AIPAC Policy Conference, McCain recalled addressing the crowd at dinner at the Israeli embassy in Washington, celebrating Lieberman shortly before his retirement from the Senate in 2013, “speaker after speaker after speaker extolling virtues and record and wonderment, beauty of Joe Lieberman.”
“All was true. And I was the last speaker” McCain continued. “So, I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to tell you about Joe Lieberman, you’ve already heard. But I have an announcement: I have spent all these years with Joe Lieberman, eating salmon, riding the Shabbat elevator, not being able to ride in a car on Saturday. I’ve had to go through this all these years and I’ve got none of the benefits, so I’m announcing my conversion to Judaism.”
“And Joe said that was great. Only I had to have a bris,” McCain continued to joke. “So I’ve changed my mind.”
For his part, Lieberman said in a statement that “America has lost one of the greatest patriots and public servants in our history. And I have lost a dear friend.”
He continued, saying “I was lucky to know him and work with him, and am comforted now by great memories of our times together and by the words he spoke to me last summer when he was recovering from the brain-cancer surgery: ‘I want to live as long as I can, but if my life ends soon as a result of this cancer, I will have been blessed to have lived a great life. So I am going to go forward with a lot of gratitude and joy every day I can.’”
Condolences from other prominent members of the Jewish community poured in following the news of McCain’s passing.
“I didn’t agree with John McCain [on] every issue, but he was a great and good man who loved his country more than life itself,” Democratic strategist Mark Mellman told JNS. “Every American should be grateful to him. He earned the respect and admiration of all of us.”
“Senator McCain was a statesman and a national treasure—and an avid supporter of Israel, an ally he first visited nearly 40 years ago,” said American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris on Aug. 25. “Our nation has lost a brave patriot, a dedicated public servant, a rare voice of independence and authenticity, and a leader of conscience. He lived a life of dignity and honor. He will be sorely missed.”
The Jewish Democratic Council of America wrote in a statement: “We honor Sen. McCain’s remarkable legacy and principled leadership, especially on issues related to national security and foreign policy. During his 60 years of service to our country, Sen. McCain rose above politics and represented his values. He was a true giant in the Senate, and he will be deeply missed. Our prayers are with the Sen. McCain family tonight. May his memory be a blessing.”
“Amongst his many virtues were his strong support of the State of Israel, especially related to its security, and his dedication to strengthening the special U.S.-Israel relationship. He was a steadfast advocate for a strong response against Iran’s aggression and nuclear aspirations,” said Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations chairman Arthur Stark and executive vice chairman and CEO Malcolm Hoenlein on Monday.
“His presence within the halls of the Senate and his strong voice for justice and freedom throughout the world will be sorely missed,” they added. “May his memory be a blessing for his family, our country, and all who share his values.”
“When Israel needed a strong, supportive voice in the Senate, Senator John McCain was always there. When the U.S. armed forces needed a strong, supportive voice in the Senate, Senator John McCain was always there,” ZOA president Mort Klein said on Monday. “Senator John McCain’s passing is a great loss to America, Israel and the world.”
“He worked tirelessly to support democratic values abroad, strengthen relations with U.S. allies around the world,” the Jewish Policy Center said on Monday. “Always mindful of Israel’s security needs, he supported Israel’s missile defense and other defense programs and believed American security was enhanced by cooperation with the Jewish State.”
“Throughout his congressional career, Senator McCain stood with Israel because throughout his life he stood up for America’s allies and our shared democratic values,” AIPAC said in a press release. “As chairman and longtime member of the Armed Services Committee, Senator McCain consistently worked to ensure that Israel had the critical resources to defend herself. In times of crisis, his eloquent voice could always be counted on to speak out in solidarity with the Jewish state.
“The pro-Israel community has lost a stalwart friend, and our country has lost one of her bravest heroes,” AIPAC added. “May his patriotic life inspire us all.”