Washington - At this week’s gathering of pro-Israel Christian lobbyists, it took an unscripted moment for the most passionate sentiments to emerge.
Instead of delivering an introduction to Israeli ambassador Sallai Meridor, Evangelical leader and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer delivered a passionate appeal against any Israeli territorial compromise to the Palestinians.
“Tell the people in Israel,” Bauer said to Meridor, “that we are praying that they never give up — even under American pressure. Never give up even one centimeter.”
The attendees in the huge conference hall burst into applause, and 4,000 activists of Christians United for Israel stood up waving flags, leaving no room for doubt about their views on Israel’s recent moves toward a two-state solution.
In more official statements, the leaders of CUFI tried to focus the group’s second annual meeting on less controversial territory. Hours before Bauer gave his appeal, Pastor John Hagee, founder of CUFI, said, “We are supportive of Israel even if they make decisions that are contrary to what we believe are their best interests.”
Founded in 2006, CUFI has built a reputation for taking on hawkish views with regard to Israel’s security and to compromise with the Palestinians. At the same time, the group has managed to tread the thin line of avoiding conflict and leaving controversial issues out of its public lobbying agenda.
Though it’s a new player in the pro-Israel lobbying field, CUFI has been successful in positioning itself as the main political force to advocate support for Israel among Christian evangelicals, who number about 75 million.
Some of the organization’s main work has been done away from the nation’s capital. With chapters in 50 states, CUFI began building bridges with local Christian and Jewish communities and organizing pro-Israel funding events known as a “Night To Honor Israel.” The phrase was coined by Hagee, who started the event 26 years ago in San Antonio, Texas.
The vast grass-roots operation has yielded dozens of rallies in support of Israel throughout the country, and the group’s Washington operation has built strong ties with lawmakers from the religious right who previously had little to do with pro-Israel lobbyists.
Attendance at CUFI’s meeting this week in Washington was up in comparison with last year’s 3,500 participants.
Last Tuesday, Hagee hosted his “Night To Honor Israel,” which featured politicians, religious leaders and an amount of enthusiasm that kept the Christian delegates dancing on their feet for hours to the sounds of Jewish tunes.
It was a Hagee-style extravaganza, of the sort that has made the San Antonio-based evangelist famous. As the choir began to sing “Blow the trumpets in Zion, Zion,” the crowd jumped out of their seats. Groups danced between the rows, waving Israeli and American flags; some people wept with joy. The roster of speakers at the CUFI event left no doubt regarding the group’s political standpoint. The leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke, as did former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
On Capitol Hill, the Christian pro-Israel lobby has focused on building ties with lawmakers, many of them representing constituencies with only small Jewish communities and thus further away from the reach of Jewish lobbyists.
On Wednesday, more than 4,000 members of the pro-Israel Christian lobby were expected to mobilize in a massive lobbying day on Capitol Hill. The group has set three legislative goals for this year: supporting the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which would impose tough sanctions on Tehran; advocating for approval of foreign aid to Israel, and calling for the approval of measures that will enable international forces in Lebanon to be more active in blocking Hezbollah.
While supporting Iran legislation that is specifically designed to avoid a military confrontation, Hagee has his own views on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime: “He will not give in to sanctions,” Hagee said. “It is time for America to adopt Senator [Joseph] Lieberman’s words and consider a military pre-emptive strike against Iran.”
Issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are off the table, as far as CUFI’s lobbying agenda is concerned. The decision not to focus advocacy work on this issue is indicative of the sensitive place in which the pro-Israel Christian group stands: While it opposes any compromise, the Israeli government is in the midst of taking measures to strengthen the Palestinian leadership as a first step on the road to the resumption of talks for a two-state solution.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, has also embraced the new Palestinian leadership and supports American actions to strengthen it. But while quiet on the issue when on Capitol Hill, CUFI leaders are clear about how they view territorial compromise.
“I am concerned that there soon will be an attempt to parcel out parts of Israel in order to appease others,” Hagee said at Tuesday’s event, warning that the Europeans and the U.S. State Department want to make Israel “crocodile food.”
CUFI has maintained a relationship of mutual understanding and respect with Aipac. The latter’s executive committee, which also met this week in Washington, discussed briefly the views of its Christian counterpart, stressing the common agenda on issues relating to Iran and foreign aid. Aipac sources said there is no formal coordination between the groups, though CUFI does advocate for some issues that are important for Aipac.
Last March, Hagee gave one of the keynote speeches at Aipac’s policy conference. The pro-Israel lobby embraced him warmly, cheering and applauding.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman