US evangelicals at odds on embracing Israel

OAKLAND, Aug 2 (IPS) - It was business as usual during Christians United for Israel’s recent “Israel Summit,” its highly-publicized second summer sojourn to Washington.

There were thousands of supporters in attendance, including an impressive array of Republican Party elected officials and political leaders. There were a series of seminars and workshops aimed at solidifying pro-Israel talking points, and growing the organization’s political effectiveness.

And there was Pastor John Hagee, the head of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), once again proclaiming that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was this generation’s Adolf Hitler.

Hagee, leader of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, is a wealthy, world renowned television evangelist. He told the overflow crowd at the organization’s “Night to Honour Israel” celebration that, “It is clear that Israel is in the greatest danger she has faced since six Arab armies tried to strangle the Jewish state in the birth canal in 1948.”

As he has been doing repeatedly in sermons to the faithful and other speaking engagements, during television and radio interviews, while on previous lobbying visits to Washington, and in his writing, including his best selling book Jerusalem Countdown, Hagee put Iran and Ahmadinejad in CUFI’s crosshairs.

“The head of the beast of radical Islam in the Middle East is Iran and its fanatical president, Ahmadinejad,” Hagee intoned. “Ahmadinejad believes if he starts a world war, the Islamic messiah will mysteriously appear and produce a global Islamic theocratic dictatorship. Ladies and gentlemen, we are reliving history. It’s 1938 all over again. Iran is Germany. Ahmadinejad is Hitler and Ahmadinejad, just like Hitler, is talking about killing the Jews.”

Hagee, who founded CUFI 18 months ago, brought some 5,000 supporters to the nation’s capital to celebrate its second year of existence, display its political potency and, perhaps most importantly, lobby Congress against taking any steps that would, in his mind, be harmful to Israel.

CUFI officials reported that members met with 279 lawmakers, including 57 senators.

The CUFI conference was a magnet for Republican Party politicos and some Jewish supporters, and provided a platform for former Democratic Connecticut Senator (elected this past November as an Independent) Joseph Lieberman who, in his address likened Hagee to Moses as a “leader of a multitude.”

“The support of Christian Zionists is critical to Israel’s security and strength,” Lieberman said, “and to America’s security and strength.”

Christian Zionism, embraced by many prominent US evangelical leaders, is the belief that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical “End Times” prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support.

The Night to Honor Israel and the conference in general also drew former House Speaker and current FOX News contributor, Newt Gingrich, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (currently under indictment), and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others.

Working with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party has been engaged in factional fighting with Hamas, “is an absolute waste of time,” Hagee told

“Abbas is controlled by Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization. If Abbas does anything that really irritates those terrorists, they’ll shoot him … Hamas controls him, and when a terrorist controls you, if we give to others, to Abbas, Hamas will use it for their benefit.”

While CUFI — often referred to as the Christian equivalent of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) — was urging US legislators, and leaders of Israel, not to support giving up even an inch of land to the Palestinians, another group of US evangelical leaders unveiled a decidedly different approach for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

In an open letter to President George W. Bush, sent on 27 July and published in the New York Times two days later, more than two dozen evangelicals, including leaders of denominations, Christian charities, seminaries and universities, thanked Bush for “reinvigorate[ing] the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to achieve a lasting peace in the region,” and urged him not to “grow weary” in its attempt to negotiate a “lasting peace” in the region.

The letter pointed out that contrary to popular belief, a significant number of evangelicals in the US “support justice for both Israelis and Palestinians.” It voiced hope that acknowledging evangelical support for a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would “embolden” Bush.

Supporting Israel does not force one to withhold criticism, the letter noted, adding that “Genuine love and genuine blessing means acting in ways that promote the genuine and long-term well being of our neighbors.”

“Historical honesty,” the letter stated, “compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine. Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other. The only way to bring the tragic cycle of violence to an end is for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a just, lasting agreement that guarantees both sides viable, independent, secure states.”

To achieve this, the letter encouraged the Bush administration to “provide robust leadership within the Quartet to reconstitute the Middle East roadmap,” and “affirm[ed] the new role of former Prime Minister Tony Blair and pray that the conference you plan for this fall will be a success.”

The Quartet on the Middle East peace process is comprised of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Tony Blair is now its special envoy.

The letter concluded by saying that the signatories “renew” their “prayers and support” for Bush’s “leadership,” and it made a “request to meet with you to personally convey our support and discuss other ways in which we may help your administration on this crucial issue.”

CUFI’s John Hagee was quick to respond: “The authors of this letter do not represent the views of the vast majority of Bible-believing mainstream evangelicals in America,” he said.

“The problem in the Middle East is that Israel has no partner for peace, and Israel’s neighbors refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Hagee added. Assertion by the letter’s writers that the Palestinians have a historic connection to the Holy Land is “absolutely incorrect,” he said.

CUFI is planning on sending Bush its own letter “voicing their opposition to American pressure on Israel for any further land withdrawals,” The Jerusalem Post reported.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the US Right.

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Related Links

  • Father of Christian Zionism leaves the building, Bill Berkowitz (17 May 2007)