At Conference, Evangelicals Take On Netanyahu's Fight

By Nathan Guttman

Published July 23, 2009.
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Evangelical Christian supporters of Israel are taking on the Netanyahu government’s fight to ease mounting pressure from the Obama administration on the settlement issue.

A three-day conference of Christians United For Israel (CUFI) held in Washington this week mobilized supporters, who according to organizers represent millions of followers throughout the country, to push back against what they see as unfair and uneven demands being imposed on Israel.

Christians United for Israel is treading a thin line in its advocacy work in Washington. On the one hand, the group strongly opposes the Obama administration’s all-out pressure on Israel, but on the other hand leaders of the organization are cautious as to not be viewed as taking a political standpoint on the contentious issue of settlements.

The focus, during CUFI’s three-day conference was, therefore, on the issue of pressure. The term “pressure” came up time and again in every speech and dominated the talking points provided to activists before their lobbying meetings on Capitol Hill. Echoing the message conveyed by Jewish groups to President Obama in their July 13 White House meeting, Christian activists are also focusing on the style of the administration’s approach to Israel, not on the substance of the demands.

“If Israel’s democratic elected leaders decide to be more cautious we should not pressure them,” said David Brug, CUFI’s executive director in an interview during the conference. “We should work with our ally Israel, not pressure it.”

But judging from the crowd’s reactions, it is clear that sentiments ran deeper and that many of the 4,000 activists gathered at Washington’s convention center held strong views regarding Obama’s attitude toward Israel.

“Obama goes on in a manic, obsessive way about the settlements as if the settlement [issue] is key for peace,” said Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Wekly Standard to a roaring crowd. He then added that “the whole idea of land for peace is dead.”

Democratic congresswoman Shelly Berkley of Nevada had the crowd on their feet when she called the debate over the settlements a “red herring” and said there is “no way” that Israel should be restricted from building for the purpose of natural growth. “To pin the peace process on the settlement issue is fool hearted and for the United States to publically dress down the prime minister of Israel is a huge mistake,” Berkley said.

Encouraged by the positive response of the audience and the warm welcoming of host Gary Bauer, Berkley added: “If I wasn’t so Jewish, I’d think about converting right now.”

(Berkley was not the only Jewish speaker at the event to articulate deep sympathy to the Christian crowd. Senator Joe Lieberman said to the participants: “I am your brother Joseph” and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents called Pastor John Hagee, CUFI’s founder, “my pastor.”)

In his speech and the following discussion, Hoenlein tried to avoid direct questions regarding president Obama’s treatment of Israel, saying: “I can’t judge what’s in his heart and in his head.” But he later called on the crowd to lobby against pressuring Israel, saying that “this is an administration that is very sensitive to public opinion, and this is a critical role you can play.”

Hagee, in his keynote speech during the “Night to Honor Israel” which was part of the conference, also equipped activists with a similar message as they readied their lobbying day on Capitol Hill. “Hello Congress, were putting pressure on the wrong people here,” Hagee said, adding that If America wants to get tough, it should “get tough with the enemies.”

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative organization, struck a clearer tone when speaking about Obama’s policy toward Israel. “The U.N. is not eternal, CNN is not eternal, the President of the United States is not eternal,” Bauer said, “but that covenant is eternal.”

CUFI, founded four years ago by Pastor Hagee, has been making an effort to stir away from controversy and from the hawkish, right-wing image it acquired in its early years. Hagee’s known views on settlements and his opposition to a two state solution are now put aside in favor of a more inclusive approach which is similar to that of some mainstream Jewish groups. CUFI also refrains from discussing issues relating to its leaders beliefs on domestic and family issues, in order to reduce friction with broader Jewish community that does not share Hagee’s conservative approach.

Organizers of the CUFI conference requested participants not to speak with the press and restricted the movement of reporters in the convention center. Interviews were permitted only with activists previously chosen by organizers. One of them was Scott Thomas, senior pastor of Without Walls Central church in Lakeland, Florida. Thomas, the groups Florida state director, said he and many others have concerns about Obama’s policy toward Israel and that they’d like “to see Israel being able to operate.” Thomas added that as is the case with any new administration, “we want to see things firm up.”

At all Night to Honor Israel events, held across the country, CUFI seeks donations for Israel and according to officials with the organization, it has raised $12 million last year. This is a relatively small sum compared to the major pro-Israel fundraising campaigns organized by Jewish groups. CUFI officials said that only a small fraction of the money given to Israel is directed to projects in West Bank Jewish settlements.

For the 4,000 activists attending this year’s conference, a main rallying point was the issue of Jerusalem. The gathering took place only days after the administration asked Israel to halt construction in the East Jerusalem compound known as the Mufti’s House. Israel rejected the demand arguing it has the right to build in any place in Jerusalem. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations issued a statement expressing dismay over the objections raised by the administration on this issue. To the Christian supporters of Israel Hoenlein said the demand for a united Jerusalem has shaped the Jewish people for centuries. “Jews went to their death saying next year in Jerusalem.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.


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