In one of his speeches during that time, at a fundraiser in a St. Louis golf center, he said: "My dear friends, you have probably seen our European friends say, 'Well, the Israelis have got to stop.' But what would we do if somebody came across our borders and killed our soldiers and captured our soldiers? Do you think we would be exercising total restraint?"
Here is a subject with which McCain identifies a great deal more with Israel than some of the members of the current U.S. administration - his concern for the Israeli prisoners. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has given some of her interlocutors cause to understand that she believes this to be an obsession which affects Israel's judgment. She may even be right about this - but McCain, a former POW, identifies with this obsession. Whenever Israel needs someone to pick up the telephone on the subject of the prisoners, McCain is ready to help -if he can.
Israeli captives on the one hand - prisoners in Israeli jails on the other. McCain believes that Israel is the perfect example of how terror suspects should be interrogated, without torture. During one of his meetings with Shaul Mofaz, when the latter was still defense minister, McCain's aides asked for details on this subject.
At the time the senator was in the midst of a battle against the forms of interrogation supported by the Bush administration. This is one of the many issues over which McCain upset his Republican colleagues, when he ignored the party line and joined the Democratic legislators. McCain is a man of many sides, many enemies, and many friends.
An old Washington hand, familiar with all the candidates for the presidency, offered yesterday an interesting way of differentiating between them. Barack Obama is a complete mystery, he said. We cannot tell who his choice of aides will be, and also not necessarily what his policies will be. Hillary Clinton is surrounded by persons that are well known in Israel - and she will bring with her a team that is known, but it is difficult to tell what her policies will be. Clinton is a woman who keeps her cards close.
McCain is the opposite of Clinton - his policy is open or at least better known, but who will be the persons he will select to fill the posts in his administration are difficult to tell in advance.
One of the factors contributing to this is the fact that McCain is divided by two worlds. There is the realist McCain, whose friends are Brent Scowcroft, from the Ford and Bush Sr. administration, Henry Kissinger and Senator Chuck Hagel, who was not a fervent supporter of Israeli government policies, and many military and security figures, like Norman Schwartzkopf, former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, former secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, and many others.
It is McCain who told Haaretz's Amir Oren of the possibility that he would send Scowcroft and James Baker as envoys to the Middle East, for which he was later strongly criticized. Richard Fontaine, an aide, who was in the interview later denied this was said, and that too much importance was given to this.
McCain's official stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is similar to that of the Bush administration in its current form: zero tolerance for terrorism, but at the same time in favor of efforts to progress toward a diplomatic solution.
It is this latter McCain who will be easier for Israel to get along with. It is the McCain who was favored by the neo-conservative faction during the 2000 elections, because of his support (once more to the chagrin of the party) for Bill Clinton's interventionist policy in the Balkans.
The former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, is one of the unofficial members of his faction and he is a McCain backer, as is the columnist and editor William Kristol, and Robert Kagan, who was an adviser to secretary of state George Schultz, and most likely also his brother, Fred Kagan, who wrote the plan for the surge in Iraq, as well as McCain's official adviser on matters of foreign policy, Randy Scheunemann.
In any case, the question of how McCain will manage the relationship with Israel will depend on which McCain arrives in the White House.
On some issues he has already made his position clear. If there is one statement that has made him popular among Israeli leaders it is this: "There is only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear armed Iran."
When McCain makes such a statement, Israel believes him, because McCain - and this is precisely what makes him a candidate with a chance to win - is a man who keeps his word. In a speech at Yeshiva University he said that "Iran's choice is clear. So is ours." This will be a subject that will be high on the agenda during the confrontations between the Republican candidate and his Democratic counterpart.
But striking Iran or threatening to do so is not a policy that is acceptable to the security faction among McCain's friends. They will try to convince him that this is a mistake, and McCain will listen - as he listens to everyone - until he forms his own idea, and then he will no longer listen to anyone.
He will be a stubborn president with whom one is advised not to quarrel. George Bush is also such a president. Israel suffered from this, and still does, when he forced through the participation of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. On the other hand, Israel benefited from this when Bush threw away Yasser Arafat's telephone numbers.
Israeli experts on American politics said in recent weeks that a campaign between Obama and McCain will place Israel at center stage and will require extreme caution on the part of Israel. McCain is hoping to attract Jewish American votes, both because of his many years of support for Israel, and also as a result of the endorsement he received from Senator Joe Lieberman.
Lieberman is often mentioned as a possible member of the McCain administration, possibly as secretary of defense.
One reason why McCain can draw Jewish votes is that he is free of the burden of George Bush, who in spite his support for Israel, cannot easily attract Jewish voters because he is a conservative evangelical. McCain, on the other hand, has adopted moderate policies domestically, and will allow Jewish voters to choose him with greater ease.
Douglas Bloomfield, a former lobbyist and now a columnist in Washington, believes that McCain is "the Republican with the best chance of returning his party to the Reagan-era level of at least 30 percent of Jewish voters."
Rumors in Israel that McCain's brother, Joe, had converted to Judaism, are false. In a telephone conversation Joe McCain described himself as a "Judeophile" and said he once dated a Jewish girl.
"In would have been proud to be Jewish," he told Haaretz in a telephone conversation, but to the best of his knowledge, this is not the case.
He says that some people may think so because of an article he wrote and disseminated among friends, on the subject of hatred of Jews, "the most abused, kicked-around race of people."
"While we mourn and seethe at September 11th, we don't notice that Israel has a September 11th sometimes every day," he wrote in support of Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism.
He added, and reiterated again yesterday, that he is not concerned about Israel's security because he believes its strong army will protect it. If Israel ever requires his help, he promised, he will stand by it side "completely," since it is "our only ally in the Midde East."
His brother has been a veteran proponent of sending military aid to Israel; maintaining Israel's military supremacy is a cornerstone of his political scope. McCain's favorite Israeli acquaintance, his aides never hesitate to say, is Ehud Barak, whose name is synonymous with security. He visited Israel many times, and has met with every prime minister, from Menachem Begin to Ehud Olmert.
Nevertheless, McCain's voting record shows a limit to his support of Israel: he is ideologically opposed to "earmarks" - private enterprises sponsored by state funds - which he calls "pork" politicians feed their voters. McCain was privy to several projects that contributed to the cash flow of the Israeli military industries, but he has never voted in their favor. This is nothing against Israel in particular - he doesn't vote in favor of similar bills even when they involve companies that are based in Arizona, his own state.