Beset by growing friction with the Clinton administration and splits in the U.S. Jewish community, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned for grass-roots U.S. support to what might seem an unlikely source: Christian fundamentalists.
Israeli officials say Netanyahu has decided to court Protestant evangelicals to demonstrate that he has a solid base of support in a powerful U.S. constituency even though some of its members are such outspoken critics of President Clinton that they are unwelcome in the White House.
The Clinton administration wants to lean on Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlement activity and take other steps to resuscitate the stalemated Middle East peace process. Although the American Jewish community continues to offer public support to the Israeli prime minister, some key leaders are beginning to share the president’s impatience with the pace of negotiations. Netanyahu’s courtship of evangelicals is intended to fill that gap.
Before keeping an appointment at the White House during his visit in January, for instance, Netanyahu had a high-profile meeting with evangelical leaders with well-known anti-Clinton views.
Although Clinton owes no political debts to the Christian right, the number of evangelicals is just too large for him to ignore. Moreover, conservative Christians have considerable influence with Republicans, potentially giving Netanyahu a counterbalance to the White House in the Republican-led Congress.
For Netanyahu, keeping U.S. backing is critical. Washington is Israel’s only reliable ally, something the Israeli public knows full well. Although Israelis sometimes grumble about their reliance on Washington, public opinion polls show clearly that they want their prime ministers to maintain cordial relations with the White House.
“An Israeli prime minister usually needs the support of both the U.S. president and the U.S. Jewish community--Netanyahu has neither,” said an analyst with strong pro-Israel views.
Netanyahu’s embrace of the Christian right is not original. His Likud Party mentor, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, also counted on Protestant evangelicals to shore up his American flank during the divisive Israeli war in Lebanon in 1982.
“Likud prime ministers who get criticized by some American Jews tend to turn to the Christian right as an alternative source of support,” said Steven L. Spiegel, a UCLA political science professor and expert on the impact of U.S., Israeli and Palestinian public opinion on the peace process.
In many ways, evangelicals are the ideal U.S. support group for an Israeli government. Although there are differences of opinion among Christian fundamentalists, the evangelicals tend to support Israel for theological reasons that are unaffected by current political issues.
By large majorities, they see the Middle East as a stark contest between Israeli good and Arab evil.
“Anyone who believes the Bible to be the inspired word of God has a natural attraction to Israel,” said Pastor John Hagee, founder of the 16,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and a widely syndicated television preacher. “Israel is the only nation ever created by a sovereign act of God.”
Hagee said his interpretation of the Bible means that support of Israel is mandated by God and is not subject to change based on the policies of Netanyahu or of any other Israeli government. This unquestioning support is what distinguishes the attitude of many evangelicals from that of other Christians, secular Americans and many American Jews.
“There is a blind belief by many Christians in support of the state of Israel,” said Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network. “There is a blind trust in the nation of Israel which is not rooted in any knowledge of what is happening in that country.”
That sort of support is attractive to Netanyahu right now because U.S. Jews clearly are split about the wisdom of his policies.
Spiegel said Netanyahu is seen by U.S. Jews as “insufficiently enthusiastic about the peace process. Support for the peace process is much stronger and deeper among American Jews than it is among Israelis.”
Moreover, he said, the debate in Israel over legislation giving Orthodox rabbis almost total control over religious conversions “has really hurt, deeply hurt in more ways than the Israeli government fully appreciates,” its relations with adherents of the Conservative and Reform strains of Judaism, which are by far the most popular among American Jews.
The Second Coming
Many evangelicals have a political affinity with Israel, which they describe as the only true democracy in the Middle East and the only true friend of the United States in the region. But it is the theological ties that bind tightest--and cause growing unease among some American Jews and some liberal Christian denominations.
“Some of the very same people who are most supportive of the state of Israel and its security and well-being don’t see Judaism as a full and valid religion,” said Rabbi James Rudin, inter-religious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee. “It’s like ‘Israel si, Jews no.’ ”
What bothers Rudin is the belief among many evangelicals that establishing and nurturing a Jewish government in Jerusalem is a necessary condition to the Second Coming. Drawing on a variety of biblical texts, some evangelical leaders argue that the end of the world is drawing near.
“Many American Jews will say: ‘Any port in a storm. If they support Israel, that’s fine. Don’t worry too much about the apocalypse,’ ” Rudin said, referring to the account in the Book of Revelation of a final battle between good and evil fought at Armageddon, a location that evangelicals believe is the northern Israeli region now known as Megiddo.
But he expressed concern that some evangelicals believe “there is a divine plan out there in which my people will play [only] a supporting role. What disturbs me is that my fellow Jews have not examined fully the theological engine that is pulling [evangelical support]. I welcome the support, but at least I know what is involved here, the theological basis. Not a lot of Jews do.”
Although evangelicals have supported Israel since the modern state was established 50 years ago, Likud-led governments seem more comfortable with the relationship. When Netanyahu stopped first at a rally of evangelicals before his White House visit in January, the slightest suggestion of a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians drew loud jeers. His speech was met with chants of “Not one inch.”
Some fundamentalist Christians support Israel for religious reasons that have nothing to do with apocalyptic prophesy. Television evangelist Jerry Falwell said the theological basis for his unflinching support for the Israeli government is his interpretation of the story in Genesis of God’s covenant with Abraham.
As for linking modern Israel to the Second Coming, Falwell said: “Some evangelicals do hold to that. I’m not one of them.”
Hagee, however, clearly is. And so are many others.
“My father was a great Bible scholar,” Hagee said. “Before Israel was a state, he would teach his congregation that two things have to happen before the Messiah returns to Earth. One of those is that the state of Israel must be reborn. The second thing is the city of Jerusalem would need to be in control of the Jewish people.”
Officials of the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group representing 34 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations, say that more liberal Christians also support Israel’s right to exist but reserve the right to oppose specific government policies.
Arab Christians Overlooked
Paradoxically, the evangelical view of Israel overlooks an Arab Christian community that has lived in the Holy Land for centuries.
Dale Bishop, chairman of the Middle East committee of the National Council of Churches, complained that pro-Israel evangelicals “either ignore or downplay the presence of Arab Christians--it is as if they don’t matter. Everything is subsumed into what many of us consider fanciful readings of prophecies.”
For Netanyahu, however, this support could be crucial.
“What Netanyahu wants is an American political coalition that will support Israel to the bitter end,” said William H. Lewis, a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and an expert on the Middle East.
Lewis said Netanyahu seemed to taunt Clinton by meeting with Falwell and other anti-administration fundamentalists before conferring with the president. He said Clinton “should have said this is not acceptable, but he accepted it.”
Falwell said: “Netanyahu understands America better than other [Israeli] prime ministers have. His meeting with me the night before his meeting with the president was not accidental. I knew what he was up to. This prime minister had enough American in him to know how to rub it in.”