Republican US Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008, died at age 81 on Saturday night, after a losing battle with aggressive cancer.
“Senator John Sidney McCain III died at 4:28 p.m. on August 25, 2018,” His office said in a statement. “With the Senator when he passed were his wife Cindy and their family. At his death, he had served the United States of America faithfully for sixty years.”
“The State of Israel salutes John McCain,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday in response to the death of the long-time US senator. Netanyahu called McCain a “great American patriot and a true friend of Israel.”
Netanyahu, on the last day of a visit to Lithuania, issued a statement saying that he will always “appreciate in my heart his strong friendship toward Israel and toward me personally. His consistent support for Israel flowed from his faith in the principles of democracy and freedom.” He said Israel has never had a bigger defender than McCain.
McCain had been battling a glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer discovered in July of 2017
, and had not been seen at the US Capitol in 2018. McCain had undergone surgery in mid-April for an intestinal infection.
McCain was a powerful political figure and a strong advocate of Israel. The vacancy created by his death narrowed the Republican majority in the US Senate to 50 seats in the 100-member upper chamber, with Democrats controlling 49 seats.
Alternatively affable and cantankerous, McCain had been in the public eye since the 1960s, when as a naval aviator, he was shot down during the Vietnam War and tortured by his North Vietnamese communist captors during 5-1/2 years as a prisoner.
He supported Israel’s military action in Gaza against Hamas in 2014; aggressively opposed the nuclear deal brokered between six world powers and Iran in 2015; and passionately criticized the Obama administration’s decision not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in 2016.
Traveling so frequently with one of his best friends, former fellow senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), across the country and worldwide, McCain once joked that he was so familiar with kosher food he may as well convert to Judaism.
They traveled together countless times to Israel, and in the mid-2000s, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), joined them on their overseas trips – to Israel and everywhere else that McCain determined the United States should make its strength known to allies and enemies. They were often photographed together – they called themselves the Three Caballeros – each grinning, wearing the senator-abroad uniform of a blazer and an open collar button-down shirt.
They seemed to have had a blast together; McCain went deep blue at an Israeli embassy reception in 2012 that honored Lieberman as he retired from the Senate. He described the alternating sensations of alarm and boredom that was the job of being a companion to an Orthodox Jew. “Why, in every f***ing kosher menu, do we have to have salmon?” he asked. And then there was the time McCain fell asleep on a plane and woke up next to Lieberman davening (praying) in a tallit (prayer shawl). “I hear this mumbling and I look and there’s this guy wearing a shawl — I thought maybe I’d died.”
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.
Lieberman by 2008 was no longer a Democrat but was still caucusing with the party. That didn’t stop him from endorsing his friend, and McCain thought seriously of repaying the compliment by naming Lieberman his running mate. The GOP establishment mightily resisted, saying Lieberman’s backing for reproductive rights would drive away conservatives; McCain at the last minute chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin instead.
But in one of his last statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in response to US President Donald Trump's decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
, McCain was hesitant.
“I have long believed that Jerusalem is the true capital of Israel,” McCain said. “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.
“Any future relocation of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” he added, “should be part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy in coordination with regional partners to achieve peace and security between Israelis and Palestinians.”
McCain’s family made a statement mere hours before his death, saying, “John has surpassed expectations for his survival. But the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict. With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment.”
The family added, “[We are] immensely grateful for the support and kindness of all his caregivers over the last year... and for the many thousands of people who are keeping him in their prayers.”
President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences to the family. “My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!”
The American Jewish Committee mourned the passing of McCain.
“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 AJC CEO David Harris. “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 American Israel Public Affairs Committee joined AJC in mourning McCain. “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,” an AIPAC spokesperson said in a press release. “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. May his patriotic life inspire us all.”
“My heart is broken. I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years,” Cindy McCain, the senator’s wife, wrote on Twitter. “He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the place he loved best.”
Herb Keinon, Reuters and Ron Kampeas/JTA contributed to this report.
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