Who really wants Trump to recognize Jerusalem? His evangelical supporters at home
President Trump summed up a central reason for declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel — one of the most consequential and globally risky decisions of his presidency — in a single statement.
“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” he said from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Wednesday. “Today, I am delivering.”
The decision may have alarmed prime ministers, presidents, kings and their subjects around the world. But it fit neatly into Trump’s political calculus and personal view of his mandate.
In his view, he is the president who pushes through toward “historic” change while those around him urge equivocation. He is the president who bluntly scorns the judgment of elites. And he is the president who tallies “promises kept.”
Especially important are promises to the voters Trump sees as his base, who include a strong majority of evangelical Christians.
“You can see it in his face,” said Robert Nicholson, executive director of The Philos Project, a conservative-leaning group that advocates for Christian involvement in the Middle East and has not weighed in on the Jerusalem question. “His eyes kind of light up when this issue comes up.”
The decision also holds important political implications for Vice President Mike Pence, the only administration official in camera view as Trump delivered his announcement that the United States would not only recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but would begin steps toward moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
Pence, whose political ambitions have not ended with his ascension to the vice presidency, according to many who know him, stood military straight, gazing reverently toward the president. He plans a trip to Israel later this month.
Polls suggest the new policy will not be broadly popular. A Brookings Institution survey released on Friday found only 31% of Americans support moving the embassy. A large majority of American Jews, who lean to the left, oppose the idea, according to repeated polls in recent years.
But those who support the idea are passionate and influential. That includes a large number of evangelical Christians, as well as some prominent conservative Jews, notably Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is one of the most important donors in the Republican Party.
John Hagee, a prominent evangelical pastor and leader of Christians United for Israel, said in an email Wednesday that he has met with Pence and Trump several times, bringing up Jerusalem on each occasion. In July, Pence delivered the keynote at the Christians United for Israel’s annual summit, drawing his most sustained ovation when he vowed that moving the embassy “is not a question of if, it is only when.”
“The Christian Zionist community will not forget the president’s bold actions,” Hagee said. “President Trump will be honored and memorialized by Jews and Christians for all time.”
Presidential candidates in both parties have vowed to move the embassy since at least the 1990s, never feeling obliged to follow through. Their ability to have things both ways on the issue stemmed from the fact that Israeli opinion is ambivalent on the subject, and American national security experts fear the risks to regional stability, security and strategy far outweigh the gains — which they view as mostly symbolic.
Even President George W. Bush, who identified closely with the evangelical movement, signed waivers to allow the embassy to remain in Tel Aviv.
“It’s a promise that trades at a huge discount rate,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for Bush and is also on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a conservative advocacy group funded by Adelson. “There’s little to no expectation that anybody will ever do it.”
Fleischer, who said he is ambivalent about the move given its potential to upset any possible breakthrough in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, predicted that even many supporters of the decision would greet it with a combination of shock and held breath.
But the move is the kind of tangible, action-oriented promise that appeals to Trump.
“It just sounds really pro-Israel,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, an American political group that lobbies on Israel from a liberal Jewish perspective and opposes Trump’s decision.
Ben-Ami credits Adelson and other conservative Jewish donors, banded with evangelicals, for forcing the issue to the center of Republican politics.
The evangelical connection to Israel has many roots, including some linked to end-times prophecies that include Jewish control of Israel and Jerusalem, a war of civilizations, and a choice for Jews to either convert to Christianity or die.
Hagee and others reject that connection, however. Some evangelical leaders point to Israel’s biblical role as the home to Jews and to its modern role as a key American ally. A 2014 Pew survey found that 82% of white evangelicals in America believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people, a theological conviction shared by only 40% of American Jews.
“For evangelicals, Israel is not an issue. It’s a question of identity,” said Nicholson. “They see themselves as connected.”
For Pence, the nexus is especially important. He serves as a conduit within the Trump administration to both the evangelical community and the Republican donor class, a role that could prove valuable if he ever pursues the presidency. A White House official said Pence was among those who advocated strongly for the Jerusalem declaration during a high-level meeting with Trump last week.
Pence was especially eager to have the decision made before his planned visit to Israel and Egypt. He is scheduled to deliver a formal address to the Knesset in Jerusalem. Nikki Haley, who courted evangelical support as governor of South Carolina before becoming Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, was also seen as a forceful advocate for Trump’s position.
More establishment figures, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were said to have urged caution and stressed potentially negative fallout in the region.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the promise to move the embassy was the top applause line when Pence addressed his group in February, a national conference in Las Vegas that is often viewed as a testing ground for Republican candidates seeking Adelson’s financial support.
“It’s been the cornerstone of our agenda for a long time,” Brooks said.
Brooks credited Pence with strong support for Israel since his days in Congress, when he authored legislation supporting Israel’s right to construct a security barrier. Later, as governor of Indiana, Pence signed a law opposing boycotts of Israel. He has also traveled to Israel, including a 2014 trip with Christians United for Israel.
But ultimately, it will be Trump who bears responsibility for the move.
“The buck stops with the president,” Hagee said. “I’ve discussed the issue of Jerusalem with him, and I believe this is an issue that resonates deeply with him.”
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