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Praise God and Pass the Ammunition
The Changing Nature of Israel's US Backers

Phyllis Bennis with Khaled Mansour TNI\IPS Fellow Middle East Report, Fall 1998 - this is the unedited version -

Analysis of the US relationship with Israel has long been characterized by debates over who calls the shots. Which is the dog, which is the tail; is the pro-Israeli lobby more powerful or are Washington's strategic thinkers determinative. In fact neither version is a particularly useful model. It is, rather, the intersection between the two main arenas of US-Israeli relations, the political and the strategic, that provides the main locus of US decision-making.

During the decade of consolidation of strategically-unchallenged, post-Soviet US hegemony in the Middle East, and especially during the two years of Netanyahu's premiership, there has been both consistency and change in both arenas.

US-Israeli relations began in tandem with the emergence of the Cold War. From the beginning, the key element in the relationship was the expectation that Israel - initially quite dependent and in general deemed a more reliable US ally than the Arab governments -- would serve important US interests in and around the region. The domestic political concerns, especially Jewish community interest in providing for Holocaust survivors unwelcome in the US and Europe, were also present from the beginning. But the breadth of political support for Israel, and its bipartisan nature, was always rooted in the fact that the goals of the lobbying networks supported, rather than challenged, the national interest as defined by the Pentagon and the State Department. Israel would continue to play a key role as a strategic US surrogate and junior partner in fighting the Cold War, in the region and for many years, far afield in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the US military victory in the Gulf War rewrote the political map of the Middle East. Key US regional interests -- protecting access to oil, maintaining strategic reach remained. And insuring market-friendly stability for creation of a Middle East version of NAFTA took on new primacy. But how to protect those strategic interests during that transition period, however, was less certain.

Israel's role came under new question. With the end of Cold War-driven proxy wars in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, the primacy once placed on military force shifted in favour of economic and market realignments. During Operation Desert Storm, US press-ganging of the Arab coalition against Iraq, a key component of Washington's post-Cold War 'new Middle East,' meant Israel had to be kept out of the fighting. Patriot anti-missile systems and other expensive military hardware were shipped to Tel Aviv, and protection of Israel became a key task for the US-controlled 'coalition' forces.

It is likely that longterm reassessments of the strategic requirements for defending US interests are currently underway in Pentagon and State Department circles, but it is unlikely that any such reassessment is likely to result in major shifts in the US-Israeli relationship anytime soon. Political realities, long congruent with strategic interests, tend to take on a life of their own. Those realities include politicians' habits of relying on Israel supporters for money and votes.

But the growing unease and division among American Jews towards Israel has led to a shift in the venue of Israeli support, out of the mostly Democratic and often liberal Jewish community to be centered more in the mostly Republican, theologically Zionist Christian right.

Fundamentalist Christians and Right Wing Israelis: The Unholy Alliance

Hours before he was scheduled to meet President Bill Clinton in the Oval office in January this year, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, staying at the Mayflower hotel just three blocks away from the White House, was shaking hands with one of Clinton's most vociferous fundamentalist Christian, right wing critics. Jerry Falwell used his highly-rated TV program to sell a widely discredited video tape accusing the president of peddling drugs and being involved in the death of former White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, who committed suicide.

Netanyahu was rallying all possible support he could muster within Washington DC to dissuade the Clinton administration from using 'pressure' (defined as a public statement of US goals for Middle East peace) to force Netanyahu back to the stalled peace talks.

After his meeting with the Israeli leader Falwell said, 'there are about 200,000 evangelical pastors in America, and we are asking them all through e-mail, faxes, letters, telephone, to go into their pulpits and use their influence in support of the State of Israel and the prime minister'.

This meeting was only one recent episode in a two-decades-old unholy alliance between the Netanyahu's right wing Likud party and the American right wing fundamentalist Christians. What is changing now is that the highly organized Christian Zionist movement is emerging as a newly dominant force within the once largely Jewish Israel support movement.

It was Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin who first recognized the evolving weight of fundamentalist Christians. He decorated Falwell with the Jabotinsky medal in the early 1980s, a few years after the latter imposed himself on the political scene with the establishment of his influential Moral Majority organization .

Begin, who came to power in 1977 after a long social-democratic period in Israel, sought natural allies in right wing American circles. An aide was instructed to meet with American fundamentalist Christians and 'explore the depth of their pro-Israel sentiment'. The outcome was astounding. In 1977 full-page advertisements started to appear in major US papers, all declaring the support of Christian organizations for Israel and its major policies such as the immigration of Soviet Jews. In 1981, after Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Begin telephoned Falwell and asked him to do some publicity for Israel, which was softly criticized by the US administration . Falwell, in his many TV appearances 'spoke in favor of the raid on Baghdad'. Begin paid him back with the medal.

This alliance has been cemented in a very long process shaped by ideological, international, and US domestic considerations. Ideologically, the fundamentalist Protestants have always entertained biblical aspirations for the second coming of Christ in Palestine, an event pre-conditioned by the 'return' of the Jews to this land and the existence of a Jewish entity ready for the Messiah. Internationally, the significance of the strategic base for the strong US-Israel relations has come under question, as did the importance of Israel as a bridge-head in the oil-rich Middle East after the fall of the Soviet Union. Domestically, it is clear that the influence of organized right wing Christian groups is skyrocketing within US politics. The 1994 Republican sweep in the House of Representatives brought to power a number of right wing Christians, and helped to make Congress into the most significant institution to back Israel's 'most favoured friend' position in US foreign policy.

Christ will come back

The fundamentalist connection to Israel dates back to the nineteenth century when American Protestants witnessed a revivalist movement. For the last 100 years, American evangelicals had their eyes set on Palestine not only as missionaries and pilgrims, but also as supporters of Israeli policies. Throughout this time they have been waiting and anticipating, in line with their biblical beliefs, the second coming of Christ. Many of today's US fundamentalists still adhere to this millenarianist theology, where the return of the Jews to Palestine is set as a pre condition for the appearance of the Messiah. Jews and Israel are merely a stepping stone in this mythological scheme of things.

Lobbying congress from this religious biblical ground dates back to this era. William Blackstone, a Chicago Methodist and a prominent figure in the early pro-Zionist Christian movement was able in 1891 to gather the signatures of 43 leading congressmen, governors, mayors and industrialists, on a petition submitted to then-President Benjamin Harrison asking him to lead an international effort in support of a Jewish state in Palestine.

It is difficult to accurately weigh the influence of Falwell and the dozen other major right wing Christian organizations in the US which now blindly support all policies of the Likud government. Some estimates put the figure of followers, listeners to Christian radio stations, and part or full time activists and members of these organization as high as 61 million Americans in the 1980s.

This uncritical support to Israel comes at virtually no political cost to the fundamentalist leaders. 'Whatever Israel does, the Christian believers will see the hand of God in it - whether it is simply a new office building, a highway, or the bombing of an Arab nuclear facility'.

The formation of the Unholy Alliance

It was in the mid 1980s that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel's major lobbying group on Capitol Hill, started re-aligning itself with the rising right wing in the US

AIPAC correctly understood that the American far right's commitment to Israel is largely different from the conventional support lent by the various US administrations to the Zionist state, support historically based within the US global anti-Soviet strategy. Moreover, the far right paid little attention to Israel's dismal human rights record. An AIPAC insider said :

[W]e are becoming more 'neo-conservative'. We want to broaden Israel's support to the right - with the people who do not care about what is happening on the West Bank but care a lot about the Soviet Union
A majority of those people were right wing Protestant fundamentalists who viewed support to Israel as a key to the political and spiritual survival of the US Those Christians were ready to lend support to Israel even after the breakup of the 'Evil Empire' because their position was rooted more in theological grounds than in the strategic and defence considerations, even the most ideologically based, of Washington foreign policy elite in the State Department, the Department of Defence or the Central Intelligence agency.

According to Robert Kuttner of The New Republic magazine, the benefit was mutual. AIPAC and its controversial links to scores of local pro-Israel PACs started 'delivering Jewish financial backing to candidates far to the right of positions that most Jews hold on most issues. Incumbent conservative republicans have discovered a cynical formula. They have only to demonstrate sufficient loyalty to Israel and they can all but lock out their democratic challengers from a substantial fraction of Jewish support'.

Seeing that Christian right wing groups have successfully targeted one pro-Israel liberal candidate after another for defeat 'because of their positive votes on abortion, civil rights and social spending and war and peace - the pro Israel money has moved well to the right of most Jewish voters'.

Evangelicals are welcome but not to evangelize!

Fulfilling the biblical prophesies of the second coming of Christ is the indispensable motivation for the religiously-rooted support American fundamentalists give to Israel. After the return of the Jews to Palestine, other developments are anticipated to hasten the realization of this biblical promise. They include the conversion of the Jews. This part of the Christian Zionist agenda is played down by both the evangelicals and their allies in the Likud. 'Begin wanted evangelicals to visit but not to evangelize' and so far both seem to have kept their side of the deal.

Many liberal American Jews have always been disturbed by this alliance between American and Israeli rightists. Liberal Jews, who favour abortion rights, oppose prayers in public schools, and defend the separation of church and state, were alarmed by right wing governments in Israel, and by Tel Aviv's Washington lobbyists, AIPAC, holding hands with extreme conservative fundamentalists on these issues.

The fundamentalist agenda, says Robert Zimmerman, president of the American Jewish Congress, threatens 'the freedoms that make Jews safe in America'. But the AJC's view is not supported by other major Jewish American organizations. The rift goes even within organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League. Nathan Perlmutter, Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, dismissed concerns of liberal Jews about fundamentalist support for Israel saying 'Praise God and pass the ammunition'. But Abraham Foxman, ADL executive director and one of the most influential voices in pro-Israel American Jewry, was dismayed after Netanyahu's meeting with Falwell, a meting that he saw as 'crude' and 'insensitive behaviour'.

The dangerous cynicism underlying such an unholy alliance is perhaps best captured by Lenny Davis, former chief of research for AIPAC and currently the second in command of the Israeli embassy in Washington (known now as Lenny Ben David), who says, 'until I see Jesus coming over the hill , I am in favour of all the friends Israel can get. Let the defence organizations [AJC and ADL] worry about the domestic issues [school prayer, abortion, and anti-semitism] among this group'.

Phyllis Bennis is an editor of MER and a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Khaled Mansour is the correspondent of the Middle East News Agency (MENA) in Washington DC.

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