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Jews are divided on Trump’s Israel plan but evangelicals bless it — why?

When President Trump rolled out his long-touted “deal of the century” on Tuesday, several evangelical Christian leaders joined him in the East Room, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders of Jewish groups like the Zionist Organization of America and the American Jewish Committee.

Among the Christians: Pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, which claims eight million members, and Mike Evans, the founder of the “Jerusalem Prayer Team,” which has more than 70 million Facebook followers. The presence of those men made perfect sense. The Trump administration consulted them regularly as they formulated their peace plan.

While pro-Israel advocacy in Washington has long been the bailiwick of the American Jewish community, centered mostly around AIPAC, in the Trump administration, evangelicals have taken on an increasingly prominent role. Indeed, Israel is at the center of a mutually beneficial relationship between the White House and evangelicals, who make up about 25% of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. And while the Jewish reaction to the plan was varied, evangelicals blessed it right away.

“He’s done so much for families, and for the state of Israel — that’s a big one with evangelical Christians,” said Jerry Falwell, Jr., on Fox News Channel the day the plan was announced. “He has rebuilt that relationship and is treating them like first-class citizens again. He’s done all the things that people of faith were promised by past Republican presidents but never actually were done, so we couldn’t be more happy.” Netanyahu started cultivating ties with Fallwell’s father, Moral Majority founder Jerry Fallwell, in the 1990s.

Evangelicals see Trump’s support for Israel as a “promise kept” to them. The Public Religion Research Institute found that 82% of white evangelical Christian voters don’t want to see Trump impeached, and will vote for him again in November as they did in 2016. His Israel policy is a big reason why.

“They see Trump policy as putting Americans on God’s side because these are God’s chosen people,” said Andrew Whitehead, a professor at Clemson University and the author of a forthcoming book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. “For most Americans, they have no idea of how to interpret the actual proposal and what it means on the ground. If Israel likes it then they will, too.”

Being “pro-Israel” varies from one church to the next. But generally speaking, most viewpoints tend to see keeping Jerusalem a united city under Israel’s sovereignty as a key goal. Jewish resettlement of the biblical Land of Israel – including the West Bank land occupied in 1967 — is another goal. This mass return of Jews to their ancestral homeland is by some Christian understandings of Scripture a harbinger for the Second Coming, and thus something that should be worked towards in order to hasten the start of a new messianic era.

Some evangelical churches even have “twinning” relationships with Israel settlements, which church activists will then visit when they come on missions to Israel. Such trips have allowed the leadership of various churches large and small to see some of the complicated facts on the ground.

But most evangelical voters have only a rudimentary knowledge of the challenges that would face the implementation of their cherished policies, , said Dr. Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“My studies of this sector shows evangelicals want support for Israel even more strongly than Jewish Americans do,” said Telhami, noting that some Jews preferred the approach of presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who tried to lure Israel to make territorial concessions in exchange for peace. However, most evangelicals don’t have finely tuned predispositions on issues within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said.

Telhami’s reading was that after Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, came up with a plan that they knew would be agreeable to Netanyahu, they brought others on board to make them feel like stakeholders in the decision-making process.

“Evangelicals are the soldiers of the Trump plan, but the plan of course is being driven by two people, Kushner and Friedman,” said Telhami. “They’re the ones who crafted the ideas and drafted this. They then essentially got the evangelicals on their side.”

This proposed deal may not lead to even one high-level Israeli-Palestinian meeting at which actual negotiations can take place. But it still will have served an important purpose, putting feathers in the caps of Trump and Netanyahu — one impeached and the other indicted — at least amongst their own supporters.

“For both of them, this is aimed at domestic political audiences,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “The Palestinians, who would have to be part of a deal, were not even included in the negotiations — that has to tell you something. It’s not been a serious effort at coming up with a proposal.”

Ilene Prusher is a journalist, author and lecturer. For nearly 20 years, she was foreign correspondent based in Jerusalem, Istanbul, Tokyo and Kabul. She joined the multimedia journalism faculty of Florida Atlantic University in 2015. Her most recent work has appeared in the Forward, TIME, FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times Book Review.

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