He delivered his words with the rolling cadence of a tent revival. He slipped the West Bank’s Ramallah into a string of cities that included Auschwitz, Pyongyang and Damascus. He invoked Moses and Anne Frank. He mixed Old Testament language into the American civics class lexicon of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“I come to you with a very simple message: Do not be afraid,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told a rapt crowd of Israeli lawmakers, yeshiva students and academics here Wednesday.
“We hear your voice call out in the desert, and we will never, ever leave your side.”
They may be talking peace and Palestinian statehood in Washington, but DeLay is touring the Holy Land with a message for Israeli hawks: The war is not over, and the United States is Israel’s brother in arms in a pitched battle against evil.
“Standing up for good against evil is very hard work -- it costs money and blood,” DeLay told a thronged hall in the Israeli parliament building. “But we’re willing to pay.”
One of the most prominent leaders in the group of so-called Christian Zionists who have grown in power in the post-Sept. 11 Bush administration, DeLay is a longtime friend to Israel. But his conservative audience still had plenty of cause to be nervous.
The U.S.-backed “road map” to peace is inching along. President Bush is pushing for a Palestinian state and a halt to Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was welcomed warmly at the White House last week.
All of this is anathema to many right-wing Jews -- and also to many Christian Zionists, whose reading of the Book of Revelation fires a fervent devotion to Israel and a discomfort with Muslim claims on the Holy Land.
Instead of discussing reconciliation and compromise, DeLay lingered on apocalyptic images of battle and strife.
“There is no middle ground, no moderate position worth taking,” he said. “We fight humbly and proudly together....
“Brothers and sisters of Israel, be not afraid. The American people stand with you, and so does our president.”
“As I shook his hand, I told Tom DeLay that until I heard him speak, I thought I was farthest to the right in the Knesset,” quipped Aryeh Eldad, a right-wing lawmaker from the National Union party.
Bush’s attempts to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace have caused a growing schism between his administration and the Christian Zionists who form a significant minority of the Republican vote.
“I’ve noticed a lot of nervousness about the road map” among evangelical Christians, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron and a monitor of religious influence on politics. “I’ve had a lot of people remark to me that they’re very worried.”
Christian Zionist organizations encourage -- and even bankroll -- controversial Jewish settlements that Washington frowns on.
The movement also opposes a Palestinian state on land that it believes was given to the Jews by God. But a few hours after DeLay spoke in Jerusalem, Bush told reporters in Washington that a Palestinian state by 2005 is a reasonable goal.
The contrast wasn’t lost on right-wing Israelis, who noted the gap between DeLay and Bush.
“We went for the road map because of President Bush. We’ve been persuaded to make moves that in our eyes are dangerous,” Israeli Public Security Minister Uzi Landau said. These fears “were embedded in the speech we just heard. This is refreshing.”
Palestinian officials are watching Christian Zionists keenly too.
Green estimates that as many as 15 million Americans are at the core of the movement and that 15% of the U.S. electorate belongs to related evangelical churches.
The Christian faithful send “many millions of dollars” to Israel and its settlements, he said.
“I’m very worried about them,” Palestinian legal advisor Diana Buttu said. “I know they’re not at all happy with President Bush’s stand on the road map, and I think they’re going to come and rear their heads.”
Peace is a Palestinian responsibility, DeLay told his audience. If the Palestinians suffer, it isn’t Israel’s fault, he argued.
DeLay has criticized the push for Palestinian statehood, but on Wednesday he kept quiet on that topic. A spokesman for DeLay said the House majority leader didn’t think that it was the appropriate time to discuss a Palestinian state.
The lawmaker called on Palestinians to rise up against terrorism and said the United States would help them if they renounced such violence. While audience members murmured in agreement, DeLay scorned the idea that terrorism can be “negotiated away” and sneered at a “paper-thin cease-fire.” He urged the isolation of the “pernicious enemy” Yasser Arafat and called Palestinian militants “so many desert scorpions.”
Since Sept. 11, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has worked to link Israeli bloodshed from the Palestinian uprising to the attack on the World Trade Center.
DeLay too drew the comparison, assuring his listeners that Israeli security is integral to the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
DeLay met a woman who lost her pregnant daughter in a bus bombing and visited the owner of a cafe bombed by Palestinian militants. He flew north to eat lunch with Israeli soldiers near the Syrian border. All the while, he assured Israelis terrorism is terrorism, and their war is his.
At the Knesset, DeLay walked away from the podium to an exuberant standing ovation. But beneath the applause was Israeli trepidation over the intentions of Christian Zionists.
On the one hand, the money is solid and the political support badly needed. But some rabbis have shunned the money. Christian Zionists believe that the establishment of Israel was the beginning of a prophesied slide into the battle of Armageddon, the return of Jesus Christ for a showdown between good and evil and the Rapture that will deliver Christians into heaven. Many of them believe the Jews of Israel are then destined for hellfire or conversion.
“They have a right to believe whatever they want,” said Kevin Shurack, a 24-year-old yeshiva student who turned out for DeLay’s speech.
“When somebody gives you a present,” said a classmate, 19-year-old Avrami Schochet, “you have to thank them.”