As President Bush met with Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas and his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon in Washington last week, one of Bush’s closest allies in Congress was in Israel. Tom DeLay, the influential leader of the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives was accorded the privilege of addressing members of the Knesset on 30 July. His speech was so extreme it prompted Labour Party lawmaker Danny Yatom to comment, “Geez, Likud is nothing compared to him.”
In his speech, DeLay, a representative from a suburban district near Houston, Texas, dismissed the unilateral cease-fire by Palestinian factions, which has resulted in a virtual cessation of violence against Israeli civilians and occupation forces, as nothing more than a “90-day vacation” for “terrorists” and “murderers.” He urged Israel to ignore the truce and go on killing Palestinian activists. DeLay informed the Israeli lawmakers that he was an “Israeli at heart,” and acknowledged that Palestinians “have been oppressed and abused,” though only by their own leaders, never by Israel. DeLay’s central point was that the entire burden of ending the decades-old conflict lay on the shoulders of the Palestinians. Knesset members gave DeLay a standing ovation.
DeLay has spoken recently of a US-funded “Marshall plan” to aid Palestinians, but this is merely an effort to distract from the core of his message which is anti-Palestinian.
Michael Brown, executive director of the Washington-based Partners for Peace said that DeLay used his speech “solely to demagogue, burnish his credentials with the extreme right in Israel and the US, and savage the Palestinians.”
Indeed, on the eve of his trip, DeLay flatly contradicted Bush’s rhetorical — though so far not tangible — commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, saying, “I can’t imagine in the very near future that a Palestinian state could ever happen.” Revealing his low, some might say racist opinion of Palestinians, DeLay stated, “I can’t imagine this president supporting a state of terrorists, a sovereign state of terrorists,” and added, “You’d have to change almost an entire generation’s culture.”
DeLay is an avowed Christian Zionist and fundamentalist — an influential constituency for the Bush administration. A key tenet of Christian Zionists is absolute support for Israel, whose establishment and existence, they believe, heralds Armageddon and the return of Jesus Christ. In the final conflagration, this belief system holds, Jews gathered back into Israel would either convert to Christianity or perish and go to Hell.
Don Wagner, professor of religion at North Park University in Chicago, explains that, “the Christian Zionist theology is really an aberration of Christian belief and it takes Biblical passages out of context and strings together a literal and futuristic interpretation that does violence not only to the historic message of Jesus but to mainstream Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christianity.”
Christian Zionism “represents an extreme wing of Protestantism,” says Wagner, who has written five books on Palestinian Christianity and the responsibility of western Christians to work for justice in Palestine, “but they are organised and in alliance with the pro-Israel lobby and the right-wing of the Republican Party, hence they can put significant pressure on the president and members of Congress and undercut any hope for a just solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
According to Wagner, DeLay and his allies, “have no interest in a just solution to the conflict, let alone the fact that Christian Palestinians continue to suffer severely as does the rest of the Palestinian population from the Israeli policies he supports.”
Because of the anti-Semitism that undergirds Christian Zionism, Israeli and Jewish American leaders have until recently kept a distance from the movement. But the logic of power politics in Washington and a sharp shift to the right among American Jewish organisations since Israel began its crackdown on Palestinians in September 2000 has driven them together.
Last October, Sharon’s minister of tourism and leader of Israel’s pro-ethnic cleansing Moledet Party, Benny Elon, appeared with DeLay at the Washington convention of the influential Christian Coalition. The crowd of thousands cheered and waved Israeli flags as Elon called openly for the expulsion of all Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories, and cited Biblical authority for this ultimate “solution.” DeLay also received an enthusiastic welcome when he called for activists to back pro-Israel candidates who “stand unashamedly for Jesus Christ.” Such comments, which reveal the absolute contradiction between avowed support for Israel and a theology that views Jews as damned, has gotten DeLay into trouble before. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory suggested that DeLay’s sponsorship of a May 2002 congressional resolution that gave unconditional support to Israel’s campaign of assassinations and violence against Palestinians might have been prompted by a need to appease ill feelings caused by a speech he gave in Pearland, Texas. According to McGrory, the speech “sounded like a warning to non-Christians that they might not be saved.” The resolution passed by 352-21.
DeLay papers over such problems with glib statements that “Jesus Christ was a Jew,” and “The Jewish people were God’s chosen people.”
DeLay insists that his devotion to Israel comes from his “faith,” leading him to a clear understanding of “good and evil.” But neither is staunch support for Israel politically costly. On the contrary, it has been lucrative in the endless race for campaign funds. Part of DeLay’s growing influence within the Republican Party stems from the fact that his campaign committees raised an impressive $12 million in 2001-2002. Washington Post reporter Jim Vandehei writes that, “In recent years, DeLay has become one of the most outspoken defenders of Israel and has been rewarded with a surge of donations from the Jewish community.”
This is new territory for Republicans; historically the vast majority of American Jewish votes and campaign contributions have gone to the Democratic Party. But DeLay’s activism, coupled with Bush’s own alignment with Sharon, the “man of peace,” seems to have the Democrats worried that Republicans could make serious gains in this stronghold. In August a delegation of 29 Democratic congressmen, is heading to Israel, many for the first time.
As the US heads into presidential and congressional elections in 2004, the result of this arms race to prove who is more pro-Israel can only mean that the Congress as a whole will be even more of an obstacle to peace than ever.
Yet DeLay’s brand of Israel worship earned him some stiff criticism. A Chicago Tribune editorial said his visit “undermined the peace process,” and accused him of trying to “warp” US foreign policy. The Los Angeles Times condemned DeLay for using the “considerable power of his office” to “promote his personal apocalyptic views.”
And even in the Texas heartland, the San Antonio Express-News declared that DeLay’s antics “will not aid in the cause of peace one iota.” The paper recently called on him to “stay home and leave the Middle East to the State Department and the White House.” Alas, there is little chance of that.
This article was first published in the 7-13 August 2003 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.