By E.J. Kessler

Published April 23, 2004, issue of April 23, 2004.
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Even as many mainstream Jewish groups hailed the White House endorsement of the disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush is catching flak from some Jewish hardliners and evangelical Christians for backing the initiative, which would uproot all the Jewish settlements in Gaza and many in the West Bank.

Some Jewish opponents of Sharon’s plan think that Israel must retain all of the territories it captured in the 1967 war for security reasons; others think the territories should not be given up because they are part of the Jewish patrimony described in the Bible. Among the most conservative of Americans, evangelicals support Israel because it is a democracy and American ally, with many of them seeing the State of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophesy. Such influential evangelical leaders as the Rev. Pat Robertson and Gary Bauer have long been on record as opposing any territorial concessions by Israel.

While the number of Jewish hardliners is small, the number of evangelical voters is not: Some estimates put it at 45 million, or a quarter of the nationwide electorate.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which collects donations for Israel from evangelicals, said his “gut” tells him that 80% of evangelicals will support the Sharon initiative and 20% will oppose it. That could translate into disaffection with Bush among some 9 million evangelical voters, a significant figure given that Bush’s advisers have lamented publicly that Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because “4 million evangelical voters stayed home.”

Eckstein described most evangelicals as “similar to the right-wing Likud position” — opposed on principal to territorial concessions, but coming around as they see Bush, Sharon and the majority of Likud leaders backing the plan.

But, like Israel’s religious settler movement, Eckstein said, “there will still be those [who are] going to hold out.”

James Hutchens, president of Christians for Israel, a pro-Israel evangelical group, said reaction among evangelicals to Bush’s backing of the disengagement plan was “mixed,” but that it was unlikely to hurt the president.

Overall, Hutchens said, evangelicals have reacted positively to Bush’s declaration that any final-status peace agreement would have to take into account the “realities” of Jewish population centers beyond the 1949 armistice lines — a code for the West Bank Jerusalem suburbs — and his assertion that Palestinian refugees would need to be resettled in a Palestinian state, not Israel.

“It’s a positive half-step,” Hutchens said, adding that many evangelicals would be “glad” to see such West Bank settlements as Adumim and Gush Etzion “off the negotiating table” even as they are concerned about an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Pastor Peter Wyns of Derek Prince Ministries, who is organizing a conference on Israel in evangelical theology, said that “biblically, [the disengagement plan] is very wrong” and “won’t solve the problem” but that on balance “God will honor this nation for its support for Israel.”

Morton Klein, the president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, said his organization was “furious” with the Bush move.

“For them to say Israel doesn’t go back to the ’67 border, so what?” Klein said of Bush’s move. “Israel can’t go back to the ’67 border. That’s just reality. If Bush had said, Israel has to keep substantial parts of Judea and Samaria, or virtually all of the Jewish communities, that would have been something. This is no different than what Clinton would have accepted at a minimum.”

The chairman of the rightist Americans for a Safe Israel, Herbert Zweibon, said in a statement that Bush was displaying “double vision” by backing divergent policies toward the terrorist factions operating in Iraq and in the West Bank and Gaza. “The paltry ‘victory’ of keeping some of the Jewish towns of Judea and Samaria and refusing Palestinian Arabs the so-called right of return to Israel is mere gift-wrapping on a box of explosives,” he said.

Klein said his group would be taking out ads in newspapers next week against the plan. He said that the Christian-Israel Public Affairs Campaign’s president, and a group called Christians and Jews-Unity Coalition for Israel had also signed the ad.

“There are a number of major religious Christians, whose names you know, who just cannot understand why Sharon is doing this and why Bush is embracing it,” Klein said.

The ZOA leader appeared to be voicing a minority opinion within the organized Jewish community. Among the groups applauding the president’s support of Sharon were United Jewish Communities, the national roof body of Jewish charitable federations; the Jewish Institute for National Security; the Anti-Defamation League; and the American Jewish Congres.

Republicans, for their part, predicted that the president’s endorsement of the plan would translate into more Jewish votes.

“It will only reinforce and expand his growing support among Jewish voters,” said the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matthew Brooks. “Changing the team at this very important moment is not a risk Israel, America or anyone else can afford to take,” Brooks said.

But the presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, moved swiftly to try to blunt any Republican advantage, declaring on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that he agreed completely with the move. That opinion was seconded by former President Clinton, who told an audience in New York Monday that the disengagement plan is “a good thing,” though he said it should be followed by negotiations. Indeed, Bush himself acknowledged that he was following bi-partisan foreign policy when he noted in endorsing the plan that “all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion” regarding border adjustments in Israel’s favor.

“Nothing here is different from the so-called Clinton parameters of 2001,” wrote the communications director of the Israel Policy Forum, M.J. Rosenberg, in the group’s weekly briefing.

The Bush endorsement, others argued, will change few Jewish votes.

“I don’t think it moves a lot of votes,” said the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman.

“Most of those people who have decided to vote for George Bush because of his friendship for Israel have done so already,” Forman said, adding, “I don’t think this was fundamentally all about politics.”

Forman’s stance found echoes on the Republican side.

“Does it help him [with voters]? I pray that it does,” said a Republican Jewish activist, Jeff Ballabon. He added: “Anyone who hasn’t already figured out that it’s literally impossible to be a better friend to Israel than George W. Bush is willfully blind. And the same goes for anyone who doesn’t understand that this is totally consistent with his values and beliefs and not a political expedient.”

Bush seemed to go out of his way during his prime-time press conference April 13 to address American Jews, many of whom believe that the fight against Islamic terrorism and the battle against Palestinian terror factions are parts of the same war. He also started his press conference at 8:30 p.m., just after the Jewish holiday of Passover ended, in a move that some observers speculated was timed to allow observant Jews to tune in.

“The terrorist who takes hostages or plants a roadside bomb near Baghdad is serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid and murders children on buses in Jerusalem and blows up a nightclub in Bali and cuts the throat of a young reporter for being a Jew,” Bush said. “We’ve seen the same ideology of murder in the killing of 241 marines in Beirut, the first attack on the World Trade Center, in the destruction of two embassies in Africa, in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and in the merciless horror inflicted upon thousands of innocent men and women and children on Sept. 11, 2001.”

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