In the late 1990s, John McCain turned from a wary realism, born of the American defeat in Vietnam, to a robust neoconservatism. His hopes for liberating Iraq reflected that newfound vision. So, too, did his identification with Israeli aims in the region. But vestiges of McCain's earlier views may have surfaced this year in an interview he gave to a foreign correspondent.

Last April, at the Brussels Forum for American-European Relations, McCain granted an interview to Amir Oren, the defense correspondent for Haaretz, a highly regarded Israeli daily. In a story published on May 1, Oren described how McCain, as president, would change American policy toward Israel. According to Oren,

A McCain administration ... would send "the smartest guy I know" to the Middle East. And who is that? "Brent Scowcroft, or Jim Baker, though I know that you in Israel don't like Baker." ... McCain will act to bring peace, "but having studied what Clinton did at Camp David, perhaps not in one try, but rather step by step, and I would expect concessions and sacrifices by both sides." In general, a movement toward the June 4, 1967 armistice lines, with minor modifications? McCain nods in the affirmative.

McCain's position was clearly at odds with the Bush administration's--and with his own unqualified support for Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. By singling out Scowcroft and Baker--and endorsing a settlement based on the pre-Six-Day-War border (called the Green Line)--McCain seemed to be backing an "honest broker" negotiating strategy pursued by George H.W. Bush, but not by his son. Was this what McCain really believed?

On May 12, the online Jewish Press sharply criticized McCain. Correspondent Jason Maoz described McCain's statements as "jarring," because they "reflect the view ... championed by the State Department and both the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic party," and Maoz criticized McCain for his "almost cavalier dismissal of concerns about an interlocutor on the order of a James Baker." But in an article the next week, Maoz reported that McCain had repudiated the views expressed in the Haaretz article. According to Maoz,

The senator himself was clearly miffed at his portrayal in Haaretz, saying that "after reading the Haaretz article and subsequent report in The Jewish Press," he felt the need to "clear up several serious misimpressions." McCain said that "in contrast to the impression left by the Haaretz article, I've never held the position that Israel should return to 1967 lines, and that is not my position today." The senator further maintained that "in the course of that brief, off-the-cuff conversation, I never discussed settlement blocs, a total withdrawal, or anything of the sort."

But the Haaretz article continued to haunt McCain. During the question period after a speech at the neoconservative Manhattan Institute in July, McCain was asked again about it. McCain claimed that the reporter had misrepresented his views: "It was a reporter from a very liberal newspaper in Israel that said to me, 'the '67 borders,' and I sort of looked at him, because it was at a conference and he caught me on the fly. And he said I nodded. That's not a reason to quote someone--if you nod. But I have never supported that."

Still, that shouldn't be the end of it. Oren is a distinguished Israeli journalist who has been covering foreign and defense policy for over three decades. And some of what he reported rings true--not with what McCain has said recently, but with what McCain said before he began running for president in 2000 and became so clearly identified with neoconservative foreign policy. Asked by Middle East Insight magazine in 1998 which president had enjoyed the most success in the Middle East, he singled out Jimmy Carter, the broker of the Camp David Accord--and a supporter of a settlement along the Green Line. McCain has also consistently cited Scowcroft as one of his trusted foreign policy advisers. And he has spoken well of Baker. And the phrasing--"Brent Scowcroft, or Jim Baker, though I know that you in Israel don't like Baker"--sounds very much like McCain-style repartee with reporters.

I asked Oren himself about the interview. Oren said that the interview itself was not "on the fly," but was conducted at a breakfast table in Brussels in the presence of McCain's aide Richard Fontaine. Oren also acknowledged that the term "nod," when translated from the Hebrew, didn't adequately convey what had happened. Said Oren:

What he refers to as a "nod" [that] should not be construed as an affirmative response was a give and take, where he was searching for the right term. And when I suggested "[U.N. Security Council] Resolution 242, peace for territory, the 1967 lines with minor modifications, et cetera"--which is the standard 1978 Camp David [and] 1982 Reagan Plans--he grunted and said, "Ah-ha."

When I interviewed McCain last month, I asked him about the interview. Did his readiness to send Scowcroft and Baker as his negotiators with the Israelis signify a different kind of approach than the more neoconservative one he had been associated with? "I respect and admire all of those people and their knowledge and background," he said. "They don't make the issues. The president does." And, McCain added, "What I was saying was that I would appoint someone to go to the region who was well regarded: Scowcroft, Baker, Kissinger, George Mitchell, Tony Zinni, Bill Kristol, Randy Scheunemann. I can give you a list of 50 names of people who would qualify and go over there and make a good assessment of the situation to get the process started."

Clearly vexed, McCain turned his attention to the reporter. "So let me just say one thing about this reporter. I was walking through a crowd of people at Verkunde, and this reporter trails behind me and we had a very offhand conversation. He said, 'like '67 borders,' and I didn't know what he was talking about, and he had a tape recorder, so I would be very careful about assuming anything." I told McCain that Oren himself had said the interview took place while seated at a breakfast table. "A breakfast?" McCain replied. "It was tables with coffee on it because it was the beginning of the seminar. As with the '67 borders comment, he is lying--excuse me, he is not telling the truth, and I've given thousands of comments to thousands of people, and all of a sudden I make news with a reporter from Israel. I don't think so."

Who to believe? McCain understandably doesn't remember the details. The interview was in Brussels, not at the Verkunde conference in Munich. But was it also "on the fly?" I asked Oren again about the circumstances, and he described them in more detail. He had arranged with Fontaine the previous day to meet McCain for coffee in the breakfast area. Said Oren, "I showed up as arranged, only to find them--McCain and Fontaine--still seated with [Washington Post columnist David] Ignatius. ... Rather than disturbing them, I waited outside on the balcony until it started to drizzle, then went back in, seated myself within visual range and patiently awaited my turn. Ignatius finally left, and I took my seat at the McCain-Fontaine table." I asked Ignatius whether he had interviewed McCain that day, and he confirmed that he had interviewed him that morning at a breakfast table, but he said that he had left afterwards in a hurry and did not know who followed him. Fontaine did not respond to a request for an interview.

McCain may have a point about his position on the Green Line. An "ah-ha" and a "grunt" don't amount to much of a policy statement. But McCain clearly did acknowledge recommending Scowcroft and Baker as his negotiators. In grouping them subsequently with Bill Kristol (the editor of The Weekly Standard) and former campaign aide Randy Scheunemann--neither of whom have had significant diplomatic experience or enjoy high regard in Arab capitals--McCain appeared to be grasping desperately for a way to undermine the significance of his own statement. What really happened in Brussels will probably always be shrouded in doubt, but there is some reason to believe that McCain, faced with a foreign reporter, did temporarily let down his guard and reveal that, on U.S. policy toward Israel, he is closer to George H.W. Bush than to George W. Bush. And that's not a bad thing at all.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.