Opinion

John McCain Made Israelis Feel He Was One of Them

Israelis respected McCain because of his strong record of support for Israel’s ability to defend itself, but also because the arc of his life resonated so strongly with their experience

Visiting Senator John McCain shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, 2015.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Every six months or so while I served as U.S. ambassador, Senator John McCain would stop in Israel for a visit.

The pattern was usually the same. McCain would arrive at Ben-Gurion airport after visiting U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq. McCain traveled constantly, perhaps more than any other Member of Congress, but no one ever accused him of taking junkets to luxury garden spots. He wanted to be where the action was, to stand with U.S. troops deployed overseas, to check in with dissidents or newly established democracies, to support those struggling against terrorists and tyrants.

He was usually accompanied by his best friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, and, until his retirement in 2013, Joe Lieberman. The three of them traveled so frequently together that they became known in capitals around the world as the Three Amigos.

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But they were usually not alone. McCain was a huge believer in travel by Members of Congress to learn first-hand about foreign policy and national security matters that they would have to vote on. So he actively encouraged other, often much more junior, Senators to join his trips. And he always sought to include both Republicans and Democrats among his traveling companions, believing as he did in the importance of a bipartisan foreign policy.

Once he disembarked from the aircraft, he was raring to go. He would hop in my car — always refusing my offer to give him the “principal’s seat” on the rear passenger side — and off we would go to our first meeting. Often, we drove straight to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On the way, he would pepper me with questions about the situation on the ground in Israel, local politics and coalition gossip, recent terrorist attacks, the state of Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Israeli economy. Part of it was getting an up-to-the minute briefing — and he was deeply respectful of the expertise of our ambassadors and diplomats in the field. But another part was just him trying to satisfy his insatiable curiosity.

On these car rides, he wouldn’t hold back, either. He would usually update me about his recent stops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, or elsewhere. He was wickedly funny, able to point out the irony of a political dilemma or the hypocrisy of a foreign leader with a cutting one-liner. He had everyone’s number. And he told me exactly what he thought about U.S. policy.

To state the obvious, I worked for an administration that he often didn’t agree with. He had run hard against President Obama in 2008, and remained a persistent critic of many of Obama’s policies throughout his presidency. He didn’t care for the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, and he was deeply critical of the Iran nuclear deal. He thought Secretary of State John Kerry, who he counted as a friend after years of working together in the Senate to normalize relations with Vietnam, made many mistakes in his diplomatic role, including devoting too much time to doomed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But McCain was never anything but courteous and respectful toward me, and he always told me he appreciated my family’s and my service to our country. His criticism of Obama and Kerry notwithstanding, he always spoke in the voice of a patriotic American who wanted our president and our government to succeed, respectful of their authority and prioritizing U.S. national security interests over politics.  

Even when critical, he was fair and tried to be a serious problem-solver. Over one memorable dinner in Jerusalem in January 2015, he and a bipartisan group of Senators hashed out the basics of the compromise that allowed Congress to review the Iran deal without killing it.

When we arrived at the Prime Minister’s office, McCain and Netanyahu greeted each other like old friends, which they were. Netanyahu, who met with virtually every Congressional delegation, showed McCain a deference he reserved for few others. McCain’s staunch expression of support for Israel’s security and his admiration for Israelis’ fortitude in defending themselves were well-known, but he never failed to express them anyway. And then, he would leave as much time as possible for the other members of his delegation, who came less frequently, to ask questions and learn.

No visit was complete without a meeting with Israel’s opposition leaders. McCain championed democracy all over the world, and he was deeply respectful of societies and political leaders who nurtured it, both in and out of government.  

That outlook even led to some disagreements with Israel. After General Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi seized power in Egypt in 2013, McCain was the most prominent voice in Congress calling for restricting U.S. assistance to Egypt until Sisi made more progress toward establishing democratic governance. That put him at odds with Netanyahu, who advocated total U.S. support for Sisi. McCain and the prime minister discussed those differences respectfully, without either changing their mind.

Although he was rarely in Israel more than a day, there was invariably a buzz in the air when McCain was on the ground. If we stopped in a hotel lobby or a restaurant or went out for a stroll, Israelis immediately recognized him and came up to shake his hand. He was unfailingly polite to each of them, and told them he appreciated their good wishes.

I think Israelis respected McCain because of his strong record of support for Israel’s ability to defend itself, but also because the arc of his life resonated so strongly with their experience. His years of service in the Navy, his suffering in captivity, his refusal to accept his release until all his fellow POWs were released with him, and his decision to serve his country in politics, with a focus on national security, spoke to Israelis, and made them feel he was one of them.

At the end of a visit, McCain always took time to thank the Embassy security staff and take pictures with them, and paid special attention to the Embassy’s detachment of U.S. Marines. You could see from the way his face lit up that there was no one he enjoyed being with more than brave Americans serving in uniform. But their faces shone even brighter than his.

I always loved McCain’s visits. He took his work and the issues seriously, but had the humility to laugh at himself and the decency to show care for others. He prized alliances, like the one the United States enjoys with Israel, and felt it was important to show up and tell allies they are appreciated and we have their back.  

And in everything he did, he placed serving the country he loved at the center. In that respect, he was a role model that I, and thousands of other public servants, sought to emulate. His example still speaks to our highest ideals.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa, in the Obama Administration. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro