At a recent conference in Israel, Ron Dermer, former Israeli ambassador to the US, was asked to respond to a criticism. During his tenure in Washington, he focused more on courting conservatives than on liberal Americans. In response, Dermer noted that he had, indeed, devoted attention to conservatives - in particular the “religious right” - because at the present time, he said, “the backbone of support for Israel in the US are 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; Israel wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 GOP. In the intervening years, this movement increasingly gained ascendence and are today the leading force pushing the Republican Party to be more pro-Israel.
I’ve never before agreed with Dermer, but his observations are, as the Brits would say, “spot on.” A poll we released just this week demonstrates the partisan divide on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role played by the Christian right wing in generating this gap between Republican and Democratic views.
As 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 shows 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: views of Israelis versus Palestinians (Democrats favouring Palestinians over Israelis by a 51 to 46 per cent margin, and evangelicals favouring Israelis over Palestinians by a 72 to 42 per cent margin); attitudes to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Democrats having a two to one unfavourable view of Netanyahu and evangelicals a greater than four to one favourable view of the Israeli leader; and Israel’s efforts to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem, with Democrats opposed by a 51 to 25 per cent margin and evangelicals supporting Israel’s right to evict Palestinians by 45 to 29 per cent.
The two groups also have divergent views (though slightly less dramatically) 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. Both support an independent Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution to the conflict.
While Dermer notes the dominance of the Christian right-wing in the Republican Party and celebrates their strong support for Israel, however, he either conveniently ignores or is unaware of two pertinent issues. The peculiar theology that has taken hold among the Christian right supports Israel because it sees the “in-gathering of the Jews” as a necessary first step leading to their conversion to Christianity and the return of Christ to rule for 1,000 years before the Final Judgement. In other words, these right-wing evangelicals may love Israel for their own reasons, but they don’t 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 young, 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 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 while Dermer and his Likud Party have played for short-term gain, investing in their courtship of conservative Christians, it comes at a cost. They are putting their eggs in the right-wing evangelical’s basket, missing the point that this basket is unravelling and that the evangelicals view the Jewish people as the eggs that must be cracked to fulfill their “end of days” theology. At the same time, not only have they alienated Democrats, who increasingly find Israeli policies to be deplorable, they are also creating discomfort with younger American Jews who want nothing to do with the broader conservative agenda espoused by the likes of Robertson, Hagee and their acolytes in the Republican leadership.
*The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly