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Courting and countering the Christian Zionists

Nadia Hijab, Institute for Palestine Studies

Aug 14, 2007

Policy Note No. 19

Notwithstanding its apocalyptic agenda, Christians United For Israel, the newest pro-Israel group on the Washington block, is courted by serious presidential candidates like Senator John McCain. Pro-peace evangelical Christians and Jews are seeking to counter its fundamentalist agenda. How close is it to Israel and AIPAC? And what are the consequences for the Middle East?

Pastor John Hagee's Christians United for Israel (CUFI) attracted over 4,000 participants at its second annual convention held in Washington DC 16 - 19 July 2007, nearly a thousand more than in 2006. The self-described "one-issue organization" is a recent offspring of a relationship between the US Christian Zionists, who are believed to account for some 20% of US evangelicals, and the Israeli right that dates back to the 1970s. The relationship began as a response to the growing criticism of Israel's human rights policies by mainstream Protestant churches as well as to former president Jimmy Carter's 1977 statement that the Palestinians need a homeland.1 The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was one of the first Israelis to reach out to the US Christian Zionists, and former premier and current Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has assiduously cultivated these ties.

How Close is the CUFI Agenda to AIPAC and the Israeli Right?

CUFI says it is not a political action committee but a "non-profit association" whose funds are used to educate "the Christian Community ... on the biblical reasons why Christians should support Israel." CUFI-watchers believe that its appearance on an already crowded pro-Israeli stage owes much to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose support included printing materials for CUFI's 2006 conference.2 CUFI's lobbying agenda closely mirrors that of AIPAC and the Israeli right. The printed handouts given to participants in the 2007 conference set out these issues for discussion during visits to their members of Congress:

* Stop Iran's nuclear program, by applying diplomatic and economic pressure and letting it know that military action is an option.
* Pressure the United Nations to strengthen UN peacekeepers in Lebanon under UN Resolution 1701 to "more actively combat Hezbollah's arms smuggling."
* Provide military aid to Israel.

These same issues are prominent on AIPAC's website. Moreover, according to Executive Director David Brog, Netanyahu personally called Hagee in early July urging state-level campaigns across the US for divestment of state pension funds from Iran.

Who Gains What?

The pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli right gain much from an organization like CUFI, including:

* A major new block of votes to parlay with Congress at a time when more Americans and American Jews are challenging - with increasing effectiveness - the unquestioning support for Israel that enables it to settle Palestinian land and deny Palestinian rights.3
* Strengthened ties with lawmakers that represent constituencies with only small Jewish communities where AIPAC has less reach.4
* Another source of funds, e.g. according to investigative journalist Max Blumenthal the Christian right has been Israel's major source of tourism revenue.

CUFI gains by tapping into the established networks and power of the pro-Israel lobby in its quest to hasten the Messiah's Second Coming. Christian Zionists believe this will take place when Jews are gathered in biblical lands stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. It will happen, as M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum acerbically summarized in "Loving Israel to Death," when the Battle of Armageddon leads to the death of the majority of Jews and the saving of just 144,000 after they convert to Christianity.5 Events in the Middle East can be seen as leading to such a conflagration. For example, Christian Zionists thought judgment day was near during the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006, which is why CUFI lobbied to delay a ceasefire.6

Common enemies include: "Islamofascists" (an oft-repeated epithet at the CUFI conference); the Middle East Studies Association; Sabeel, (the Palestinian Christian ecumenical movement of liberation theology); John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of The Israel Lobby; and Jimmy Carter.

Both sides have had to compromise to cement their alliance. The pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli right downplay the Christian Zionists eschatological beliefs, though these are anathema to most Jews. CUFI itself soft-pedals its "end of days" talk and advertises its Nights to Honor Israel as a "non-conversionary event." Hagee has also played down his concern that a Middle East peace process might lead to Israel returning land to the Palestinians and slow down the Second Coming. However, US President George Bush's speech on 16 July 2007 calling for an international conference on the Palestinian-Israeli issue coincided with the CUFI conference, and it felt it had to respond by adding a fourth lobbying day issue, which was given top priority, to the three cited above: "America should not pressure Israel to give up land in the current climate."

How Strong Is CUFI - and How Strong is Opposition to CUFI?

There are estimated to be up to 75 million evangelicals in the US, about a quarter of the US population. While Hagee represents about a fifth of this number, it is an increasingly loud minority. A quarter of the members of Congress are said to be evangelicals, and many US lawmakers represent regions with large evangelical populations. Noting Hagee's easy access to both Congress and the Administration, Blumenthal believes that CUFI represents the Republican base in a Republican-dominated Washington. CUFI has chapters in all 50 states.

The influence of the pro-Israel Christian right has led to a counter-movement among evangelicals. On 27 July 2007, 34 prominent evangelical leaders sent Bush a letter saying that both Israelis and Palestinians have "legitimate rights," and supporting the creation of a Palestinian state.7 Mainstream Protestant organizations have spoken out against CUFI. In July 2007, the National Council of Churches issued a statement that "most Christians do not share CUFI's stated goals" and attacking its "ongoing vilification of Islam."8 Palestinian Christians have also spoken out, e.g. the 22 August 2006 statement by the patriarch and local heads of churches in Jerusalem saying, "We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation."

At present, however, CUFI is riding high, and its ability to pull in money and votes are doubtless what led McCain to make an unannounced visit to its July 2007 conference where he was accompanied on stage by the entire CUFI board. McCain's visit appears to contradict his stated position to make Palestinian-Israeli peace the second priority of his presidency, if elected, given CUFI's stand against any return by Israel of Palestinian land. And yet McCain told the CUFI activists, "God bless you for your commitment." Unfortunately, McCain is not the only mainstream figure in Congress, in the Administration, and beyond that has reached out to CUFI, even though this condemns all sides in the Middle East to further bloodshed.

Nadia Hijab is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies and co-director of its Washington office. The Institute's Research Assistant Brian Wood suggested the topic for this Policy Note and contributed material and insights.

[1] Interview with Don Wagner, professor and expert on Christian Zionism; see Christianzionism.org It is also believed that Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the Israeli government's good-will ambassador to the evangelicals, played a part in setting up CUFI.
[2] Interview with Rabbi Haim Belaik who, with Jane Hunter, established the JewsOnFirst.org site to defend "the first amendment against the Christian right...because if Jews don't speak out they'll think we don't mind." See Hunter's extensive coverage of the CUFI 2007 lobbying conference on JewsOnFirst.org.
[3] E.g. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who broke new ground in discussions about the pro-Israel lobby's role in US foreign policy, are bringing out a new book on 4 September 2007, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. And, Jewish Voice for Peace held its first national conference in April 2007 and set up Muzzlewatch.org to track "efforts to stifle open debate about US-Israeli foreign policy."
[4] Jewish Journal 30 March 2007.
[5] Article of 27 July 2007.
[6] Max Blumenthal, in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, 15 August 2006.
[7] The New York Times 29 July 2007. The signatories included, among others, Gary M. Benedict, president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, a denomination of 2,000 churches; Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Berten A. Waggoner, national director and president of The Vineyard USA, an association of 630 churches in the United States.
[8] The Jewish Week 07/20/2007

Published by the Institute for Palestine Studies www.palestine-studies.org. The Institute has produced authoritative studies on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1963. Its flagship Journal of Palestine Studies accounts for nearly 20% of all articles downloaded from Middle East publications carried by JSTOR, the leading US database of scholarly journals. Email contact policynotes@palestine-studies.org

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