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Christian right steps in on Mideast

A strong, new pro-Israeli voice muscles into the traditional Jewish-Arab political dynamic in Washington.

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The battle over the future of the Middle East isn't just being fought in Jerusalem, Jenin, and Arab capitals. It's also being waged in Washington – in congressional corridors, cable TV studios, and scathing memos "blast-faxed" all over town.

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This latest round of a long-running policy debate also includes a new group of combatants: Christian conservatives.

Many in this pro-Israel campsee Biblical prophecy being played out in current events. They're rallying their members – and lobbying ideological allies inside the White House – to push the US to stand squarely behind Israel. While they're hardly dictating US policy, it's clear that these conservatives now have a strong voice in the debate.

Christian groups' new vigor creates "a significant change" in the political dynamic – and makes Republicans "the more-muscular pro-Israel party," says Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute here. Ultimately, everyone has one goal, he adds: "There's only one person they're trying to influence – the pres- ident of the United States, who's not indifferent to political sentiment." In one sense, the argument boils down to two competing visions of America's war on terror.

Pro-Israeli groups – including Christian conservatives – say Israel is America's only reliable Mideast ally. It's a democracy. It shares similar values. And it, too, is fighting a war on terrorism.

Others counter that US interests in the region – besides access to oil – now include getting antiterror help from Arab states and confronting Iraq. To protect those interests, they argue, the US must force Israel and the Palestinians to find peace.

Biblical prophecy

The debate's new powerhouses are Christian conservatives. "The best friends that Israel has are Bible-believing Christians," says Ed McAteer, founder of the Memphis-based Religious Roundtable.

For years, many Christian groups were lukewarm on Israel – reflecting traditional Christian-Jewish tension. But now many see Biblical prophecy bearing on today's events. Some Christians believe the second coming of Christ will occur only after Israel rebuilds God's temple in Jerusalem. They support Israel having full control over that land – not ceding it to Muslims.

Politically, this means ensuring Bush doesn't follow his father's path. In 1991, then-President Bush created a showdown with Israel – over expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas – by postponing $10 billion in US loan guarantees.

The extent to which Bush has shown sympathy to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, is due in part to "being buffeted by his State Department and by the old hands who served in the first Bush administration," says Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative and former presidential candidate.

Clearly the Christian right isn't calling the shots. If they were, observers note, Secretary of State Colin Powell would never have visited the region.

But Mr. Bauer and others apply pressure in several ways. "A lot of folks who worked on my campaign now work at the White House," says Bauer.

Lobbying, such as the Christian Coalition's regular e-mailed action requests to its 2 million members, has an impact, says Mr. Wittmann. Growing numbers of Republicans, he says, "who have few Jewish constituents but have lots of strong conservatives" tilt toward Israel.

Bauer and others send open letters to Bush – and "blast-fax" them to the media.

Another tactic is appearances on cable networks, which are monitored in White House, congressional, and media offices. In fact, with so many combatants colliding in them, Washington's TV studios can be dramatic places. Bauer tells of a recent episode where he debated a pro-Arab spokesman on a cable network. He followed Bauer into the green room "still screaming," Bauer says, "until I pointedly told him to get away from me." He jokes, "I should be getting combat pay for going into green rooms."

Traditionally the most powerful forces in the battle are well-funded, well-connected Jewish groups. Last week, after former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Capitol Hill, so many members of Congress were pushing Bush to side steadfastly with Israel that congressional leaders in both parties urged restraint – lest Secretary Powell's mission be threatened. Yesterday, they were set to stage a rally on the Capitol steps with Mr. Netanyahu and holocaust survivor Elie Weisel.

Many Jewish groups see current events as echoing the 1940s. "It took a 4-1/2 year relentless war against Hitler, but eventually it crushed" the Nazis, says Morton Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America. That kind of steely resolve, he says, is needed today, rather than the "appeasement" of Mr. Arafat.

Arab-Americans a growing voice

The other traditional, now-growing voice in the debate is that of Arabs and Arab Americans.

James Zogby, head the Arab-American Institute, says, "Twenty-five years ago Jewish members of Congress debated Jewish members of Congress." Arab-Americans didn't have a seat at the table. Now, he's called by "bookers" for TV shows.

Since Sept. 11, he's strengthened connections with Washington power brokers. But the White House has proved pretty unresponsive, he says. "No one from the Arab-American community" has met with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, he says.

Unlike Christian conservatives, Dr. Zogby remembers the first Bush administration as a time of hope – when the 1991 Madrid peace conference led to the Oslo accords. Now, he says, "Everything George Bush senior built coming out of the cold war and the Gulf War, this current conflict is in danger of destroying."

So, like everyone in Washington's policy wars, he soldiers on.

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