Israel is over-invested in its relations with America's evangelicals

The US ultra-religious right supports Israelis for all the wrong reasons, and even that support is weakening

PSAGOT, WEST BANK - JULY 24: Evangelical Christian volunteers harvest Chardonnay grapes for Psagot Winery in a vineyard on July 24, 2017 in the Israeli settlement of Psagot in the West Bank. In a trend that started in recent years, Israeli wineries have begun to harvest earlier in the season, a move winemakers attribute to record-hitting hot summer months causing their grapes to ripen sooner. Some wineries harvest at night in order to preserve the freshness of the grapes while others harvest at dawn and rush the grapes to the winery before they are warmed by the hot summer days. (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)
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At a recent conference in Israel, Ron Dermer, a former Israeli Ambassador to the US, was asked to respond to the criticism that during his tenure in Washington he focused more on courting conservatives than liberal Americans. In response, Mr Dermer noted that he had, indeed, devoted attention to conservatives – in particular, the "religious right" – because, he said that at the present time, "the backbone of support for Israel in the US is evangelical Christians." He went on to make a few additional observations to develop this point.

Firstly, he noted that liberals, including the majority of the Jewish community, had many competing concerns, and that Israel was not at the top of their list of priorities. For evangelical Christians, on the other hand, Israel was central to their faith.

Additionally, he pointed out that the gap between Republican and Democratic support for Israel was not a new phenomenon, it was a four decades old – going back to when televangelists like James Hagee, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell led their followers to embrace the Republicans.

In the intervening years, this movement increasingly gained ascendance and are today the leading force pushing the Republican Party to be more pro-Israel.

I have never before agreed with Mr Dermer, but his observations are, as Britons would say, "spot on". Data collected as part of a poll we released last week at the Arab American Institute demonstrates the partisan divide on issues related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the role played by the Christian right wing in generating this gap between Republican and Democratic views.

As Mr Dermer noted in his remarks to the Israeli conference, evangelicals make up 25 per cent of the American electorate. They are also over 40 per cent of all Republican voters. So when our poll showed a split between the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans, most often this divide can be attributed to the views of conservative evangelicals.

Looking at the data, we find noteworthy differences between the attitudes of Democrats and right-wing evangelicals on a number of things. Fifty-one per cent of Democrats have favourable views of Palestinians, compared to 46 per cent viewing Israelis favourably. Seventy-two per cent of evangelicals, by contrast, view Israelis favourably, compared to 42 per cent for Palestinians.

Democrats are twice as likely to have an unfavourable view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they are a favourable one. Evangelicals are more than four times as likely to have a favourable view of him as an unfavourable one.

Fifty-one per cent of Democrats oppose Israel's efforts to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, whereas only 26 per cent support it. For evangelicals, the figure is 29 per cent opposed, and 45 per cent in favour.

Christian followers of American Evangelical Pastor John Hagee chant slogans in support of Israel as they wave Israeli and US flags during a rally downtown Jerusalem on April 07, 2008. Several hundreds of Evangelicals, from the Christians United for Israel movement marched in Jerusalem in solidarity with the Jewish state. AFP PHOTO/GALI TIBBON (Photo by GALI TIBBON / AFP)
Evangelical Christian groups in America still widely support Israel, though sentiments are changing among the younger generation. AFP
Evangelicals make up over 40 per cent of all Republican voters

The two groups also have divergent views (though slightly less dramatic) on two other issues: whether opponents of Israel's occupation policies have a legitimate right to call for boycotts and sanctions, and whether US policy towards the conflict should favour Israel or be balanced. Democrats strongly support the right to boycott and the need for the US to pursue a balanced policy towards the conflict.

There are only two areas where the attitudes of Democrats and right-wing evangelicals converge. Both strongly support the proposition that Israelis and Palestinians are equal and deserve equal rights. They also agree on supporting an independent Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution to the conflict.

While Mr Dermer notes the dominance of the Christian right wing in the Republican Party and celebrates their strong support for Israel, he either conveniently ignores or is unaware of two pertinent issues. The peculiar theology that has taken hold among much of the Christian right supports Israel because it sees the "ingathering of the Jews" – an oft-cited phrase in evangelical circles – as a necessary first step leading to their conversion to Christianity and the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. In other words, the right-wing evangelicals who subscribe to this view may love Israel for their own reasons, but they do not necessarily love Judaism.

It is also important to note that while the influence of right-wing evangelicals is strong in Republican circles, they are losing support among their youth – whose attitudes on a range of issues, including Israel, are moving in the direction of their age cohort on the liberal side of the political spectrum. As Shibley Telhami of The Brookings Institution has noted, a recent poll by the University of North Carolina found that "younger evangelicals are much less supportive of Israel than older evangelicals" by a substantial margin.

So Mr Dermer and his Likud Party have played for short term gain, investing in their courtship of some of America's most conservative Christians. At the time of writing, politicians in Israel are wrangling to form a new government – one that could see Likud's influence diminished, but ensure the rise of other conservative forces who have historically opted for the same gambit.

It comes at a cost. They are putting their eggs in the right-wing evangelicals' basket, missing the point that this basket is unravelling and largely supports Israel cynically. At the same time, they have not only alienated Democrats, who increasingly find Israeli policies to be unacceptable, but are also creating discomfort with younger American Jews who want nothing to do with the broader conservative agenda espoused by some within the Republican leadership.

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National