When their helicopter takes off tomorrow for a tour of Israel from the sky, Senator John McCain and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will hope it is a rerun of the 1998 precedent: a flight over Israel by then-governor George W. Bush, who later went on to win the presidency. He was with his host, then-foreign minister Ariel Sharon, who became prime minister (with the help of Barak and his permit for Sharon to ascend the Temple Mount).
American voters (such selfish types) are also concerned with issues of economy and society, spirit and atmosphere, which may tip the balance in favor of whoever becomes the Democratic candidate, whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But as far as Israel is concerned, and in view of the candidates' current positions - no one is better than McCain. The Republican candidate is clearly more qualified than his rivals to be commander in chief - in theory of the American armed forces only, but in practice also of the international alliance against radical states and terrorist organizations. McCain has a deep understanding of the region's strategic problems and publicly supports a nuclear deterrent for Israel.
McCain visited Israel many times as part of Congressional delegations. His first visit was in 1979, when he was not yet an elected official, but a Navy captain, the Navy's liaison officer to the Senate. At the time, he was accompanying Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Israelis, whether out of laziness or arrogance, do not often follow a well-known Washington rule: It is always worth investing even in the low-level members of a delegation accompanying a VIP - the executive assistant, the policy adviser or the escort officer - because at some point they will rise in the ranks of the armed forces, civil service or Congress, and they will remember the treatment they received when they were junior in rank.
Jackson was considered the archetype of a friend of Israel, both for security reasons and because of his values. McCain is the first of the Jackson school of thought to come near the White House. When he was awarded the Henry "Scoop" Jackson Distinguished Service Award by JINSA (the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) in fall 2006, McCain described himself as "pro-American and pro-Israeli," two terms he does not believe are contradictory. At the time, he described the Hamas government as a "terrorist syndicate," called for the disarmament of Hezbollah, and expressed his reservations about pro-American despots in the Middle East. About a month later, in Tel Aviv, during a discussion with a team of officials headed by Barak's predecessor, Amir Peretz, McCain declared that he was not in the Saudis' pocket.
With regard to the diplomatic process, the next president will follow the current path; if Obama is tempted to diverge sharply and imitate Jimmy Carter, he will encounter opposition. The differences among the candidates must be sought in the field of strategy. In that, McCain's advantage is clear and unequivocal. While Obama and Hillary kept silent, and years before they entered politics, McCain dared speak out - not only against an Iranian nuclear capability, but also in favor of an Israeli one. In essence, McCain seeks both to prevent nuclear proliferation and grant Israel an exemption from this regime; he calls it "a special status."
In a conference call with Major General (res.) Aharon Yariv and his colleagues at the Jaffee Center in 1990, McCain developed the following argument: He supports arms control, which depends on peace, which Israel is seeking. But Israel can only achieve a peace treaty if it feels that its existence is secure. This sense of security depends on a powerful deterrent, or on the knowledge that there is no danger of weapons of mass destruction being used against Israel, because regional threats have been reduced though an arms control regime that includes verification and inspection. McCain favors measures to limit nuclear proliferation, but on condition that they minimize the threat and cost of war.
"I do not wish to join those who speculate whether Israel has nuclear weapons or is designing long-range missiles," McCain said at the time, but "arms control measures must recognize Israel's strategic isolation and the fact that Israel exists in an area where it can fully join an arms control regime once it is clear that all other states in the Middle East will fully comply with such a regime and that Israel's survival will not be dependent on such a deterrent." The knowledge that his views would "irritate many Arab friends of the U.S." did not bother him.
McCain does not require an explanation of the linkage between progress on the diplomatic track, which involves withdrawal from the territories, and ensuring Israel's strategic strength. As president, he would certainly reaffirm Bill Clinton's commitment to Benjamin Netanyahu at the Wye Plantation conference (which was followed by Clinton's commitment to Barak and that of Bush to Sharon) on "enhancing Israel's defensive and deterrent capabilities" - a code for having become reconciled to Israel's alleged nuclear capabilities.
Should the Syrian track be revived during the next administration, the idea of a defense alliance between Israel and the U.S. may be raised again to sweeten the pill of evacuating the Golan Heights. Clinton wrote in his memoirs that he agreed to this when it was raised. Of course, such a contractual agreement would limit Israel's freedom of action, but not much more than is the case today, when the government does not move without American permission. In the difficult situations that lie ahead for Israel, it would be to its advantage for the White House to be occupied by a man like John McCain.
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