John McCain remembered as defender of Israel, principled hero

Jewish groups and Israeli politicians honor late senator for his commitment to the security of the Jewish state, as well as his ability to rise above politics

John McCain (R-AZ) addresses the media at the end of his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, March 18, 2008. (AP Photo/Marco Longari/POOL)
John McCain (R-AZ) addresses the media at the end of his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, March 18, 2008. (AP Photo/Marco Longari/POOL)

Israeli leaders praised John McCain as a “true friend” to the country early Sunday, as tributes for the long-time legislator and one-time presidential candidate poured in following his death at age 81.

In the US and Israel, McCain was remembered by politicians, Jewish groups and others as an American hero, friend and someone unafraid to speak truth to power.

President Reuven Rivlin described McCain as a “great leader, a defender of his people, a man of strong values, and a true supporter of Israel.”

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) called McCain “a war hero who continued to fight in public life for his beliefs with a clear and steady voice until his last days.”

“He loved Israel and believed in its righteousness and always supported its security. Israel owes him a big thanks. I had the privilege of working with him and will always remember the rare person he was,” added Livni, who was foreign minister when McCain visited Israel in 2008.

Senator John McCain, right ,Senator Joseph Lieberman, center, and Senator Lindsay Graham in a meeting with Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem on March 19 2008. (Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said McCain was “one of Israel’s biggest friends.”

“He loved his land with all his might and he recognized Israel’s challenges. Over 36 years of public service in the House of Representatives and Senate, Israeli governments knew they always had a friend in him,” she wrote on Twitter.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid also called McCain “true friend to Israel.”

McCain, a Republican who served in the US Senate for three decades and ran for president twice, had been a staunch supporter of Israel during his long career in American politics.

He died Saturday at his ranch in Arizona after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. On Saturday night, a black hearse accompanied by a police motorcade could be seen driving away from the ranch near Sedona where the Republican senator spent his final weeks.

“My heart is broken. I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years. He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the the place he loved best,” McCain’s widow Cindy wrote on Twitter.

The scion of a decorated military family, McCain embraced his role as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, pushing for aggressive US military intervention overseas and eager to contribute to “defeating the forces of radical Islam that want to destroy America.”

That robust interventionist streak included a fierce commitment to standing by Israel.

“A passionate advocate for American global leadership, Senator McCain rightly bemoaned those who favored a US pullback from world affairs,” David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.

Senator John McCain, left, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on March 19, 2008. (Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee called McCain “an extraordinarily courageous defender of liberty.

“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,” its statement said.

And McCain’s willingness to reach across the aisle even to liberal Democrats, which likely kept some conservatives away from the polls, extended to the Jewish community, where he worked with human rights activists.

“He was a tireless champion of the issues and principles that he held dear, from reforming the broken campaign finance system, to the effort to bar the use of torture by US authorities, to his pivotal vote just last year to save the Affordable Care Act,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “On those issues and others including combating climate change and strengthening US-Israel relations, we were honored to work with him. And when we engaged him around areas of disagreement, Sen. McCain was always honest and straightforward.”

In its statement mourning McCain, the Jewish Democratic Council of America noted that he “rose above politics and represented his values.”

Joe Lieberman, left, and John McCain visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City March 19, 2008. (Nati Shohat /FLASH90)

McCain’s willingness to buck his party was perhaps most pronounced in his outspokenness on torture, and that was an issue where he found common cause with liberal Jews. He had a long meeting with Rabbis for Human Rights (the group now known as T’ruah) in 2005 and it left an impression. The group briefed McCain on Israel’s High Court ban on torture in 1999 – and it subsequently became a talking point for him.

McCain first visited Israel in the late 1970s, and a scene at Ben Gurion Airport fused what were to become two overarching passions in his political career: Israel and human rights. McCain was accompanying Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson D-Wash., who had spearheaded pressure on the Nixon and Ford administrations to squeeze the Soviet Union into allowing Jewish emigration.

“And I will never forget at the airport there was a crowd of people that were there to show their appreciation for Scoop, and he stopped some in the crowd and told us to stop so that he could greet Nathan Sharansky’s wife, and I will never forget that one as long as I live,” McCain said in a 2008 campaign interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

He visited Israel several more times over his career, including a number of times with friend and fellow senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who ran as candidate for vice president with Al Gore in 2000.

Left to right: Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen, John McCain, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sen. Christopher Coons, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and US Ambassador to ISrael Dan Shapiro (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO /Flash90)
Left to right: Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Sen, John McCain, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sen. Christopher Coons, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

The friendship even earned a gibe from Jon Stewart, the late-night comedian who was both a friend and nemesis of McCain. Someone ought to tell the senator, he joked on the “The Daily Show,” that there are plenty of Jews in Israel; he doesn’t have to bring his own.

McCain had also run for president in 2000, but ultimately lost the Republican primary to George W. Bush. In 2008, he considered making Lieberman his running mate, but the GOP establishment resisted, saying Lieberman’s backing for reproductive rights would drive away conservatives, and McCain at the last minute chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin instead.

In the 2008 election and later on, McCain was a vigorous advocate of using all means of pressure to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 during the campaign.

Senator John McCain, US Presidential candidate for the Republican Party, visits Hall of names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on March 18, 2008. ( Michal Fattal/ Flash90)

McCain repeatedly hammered Obama for his expressed willingness to meet with Iran’s leaders and later on led the charge against the 2015 deal spearheaded by Obama that swapped sanctions relief for a partial rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.

In 2016, he called a UN Security Council resolution slamming Israel for West Bank settlements building, which passed after the US withheld its veto, “another shameful chapter.”

Others, from President Donald Trump to Senate leader Chuck Schumer, also mourned McCain’s passing late Saturday and early Sunday.

Trump’s brief Twitter statement said “hearts and prayers” are with the McCain family. First lady Melania Trump thanked McCain for his service to the nation, which included more than five years as a prisoner of war and six terms in the Senate.

Trump and McCain were at odds until the end. The president, who mocked McCain’s capture in Vietnam during the 2016 campaign, jabbed at the senator even after his illness for voting against Republican efforts to roll back President Barack Obama’s health care law. Earlier this summer, McCain issued a blistering statement criticizing Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Former presidents, including those who blocked McCain’s own White House ambitions, offered emotional tributes.

Obama, who triumphed over McCain in the 2008 election, said that despite their differences, McCain and he shared a “fidelity to something higher – the ideals for which generations of Americans and immigrants alike have fought, marched, and sacrificed.”

Obama said the two political opponents “saw our political battles, even, as a privilege, something noble, an opportunity to serve as stewards of those high ideals at home, and to advance them around the world.”

Former President George W. Bush, who defeated McCain for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, called his one-time political rival “man of deep conviction and a patriot of the highest order” and a “friend whom I’ll deeply miss.”

McCain was the son and grandson of admirals and followed them to the US Naval Academy. A pilot, he was shot down over Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for more than five years. He went on to win a seat in the House and in 1986, the Senate, where he served for the rest of his life.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called McCain a “fascinating personality.”

“He would occasionally be in a bad place with various members, including myself, and when this would blow over it was like nothing ever happened,” McConnell said Saturday after a GOP state dinner in Lexington, Kentucky. “He also had a wicked sense of humor and it made every tense moment come out better.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who developed a friendship with McCain while they served together in the Senate, said the Arizona lawmaker will “cast a long shadow.”

“The spirit that drove him was never extinguished: we are here to commit ourselves to something bigger than ourselves,” Biden said

McCain is expected to be remembered in Arizona and Washington before being buried, likely this week, at the Naval Academy Cemetery on a peninsula overlooking the Severn River.

Other plans were taking shape, too. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that he wants to name the Senate building that housed McCain’s suite of offices after the Arizona senator, who served as chairman of the Commerce Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As you go through life, you meet few truly great people. John McCain was one of them,” Schumer said. “Maybe most of all, he was a truth teller – never afraid to speak truth to power in an era where that has become all too rare.”

The Associated Press contributed to these reports.

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