Israel's Unlikely Ally: American Evangelicals

Well-cultivated ties give premier a boost as some US Jews question his hard line.

Five years ago, Ariel was a town in the doldrums. Laying the groundwork for making peace with the Palestinians, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had frozen building plans and cut off preferential funding to Jewish settlements like this one, on land Israel occupied in 1967.

Depression set in here as the settlers came to be seen as peace's spoilers and began to fear for their settlement's future.

Then came faith. Faith Bible Chapel, that is, an Aurora, Colo., evangelical church whose members made it their mission to "adopt" Ariel. Taking literally verses like Jeremiah 31:5 ("Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria") they wanted to ensure that Jewish settlements in the West Bank would continue to flourish. Gifts of all kinds, from money for a new library to equipment for a health clinic, made Ariel's residents feel that someone out there thought they had a right to be here.

There is perhaps no Israeli prime minister who has grasped the passion and political potential of folks like those at Faith Bible Chapel better than Benjamin Netanyahu. With years of schooling and diplomatic experience in the US, he has cultivated strong contacts with some of the most senior American figures in the evangelical Christian world.

Many observers say Mr. Netanyahu seemed to be reminding President Clinton of that when the Israeli leader met with Jerry Falwell in the US last month. Implicit in the message is that Netanyahu has other American friends to turn to if Mr. Clinton steps up pressure to freeze settlements and turn over significant shares of land to the Palestinians.

The warming in relations works both ways. "Netanyahu has a better understanding and appreciation of us than any other prime minister," says Dave Parsons, a North Carolina native who serves as spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, an umbrella organization of Christian Zionists. "I think his experience in the US ... allowed him to lose certain suspicions about us that other Israeli leaders may have had."

Past suspicions arose on several fronts. Missionary activity is prohibited by law here, so Israeli leaders kept cool with groups that were known to see proselytizing as a key tenet of their faith. Moreover, the theological motivation behind support from Christian Zionists is complicated. Driving the effort are biblical prophesies which promise Jesus' Second Coming after all Jews return to Zion. At that time, some Christians believe, the Jews will either convert or die.

But rather than get stuck on differences in beliefs, they focused on common goals. The nationalist Israeli camp Netanyahu leads and Christian Zionists both want Jews to settle the West Bank, for different reasons.

This unusual marriage was particularly easy for Ron Nachman, Ariel's mayor and also a member of Netanyahu's rightist Likud Party. Debates about the Second Coming meant little to him as a secular Israeli.

Mayor Nachman won't release figures on how much Faith Bible Chapel has given to Ariel, but says that he's raised "a few million" with the help of US speaking tours. He estimates two-thirds of the 140 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza have received aid from Christian Zionists.

The Colorado-based Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, which has paired some 40 churches with settlements, says some give more than others. Only the government can actually decide to expand settlements with new housing - but the moral and political support goes a long way.

And just as most of the 15,000 people in Ariel know the name of Faith Bible Chapel, many evangelical Christians know Ariel. The Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson's fundamentalist channel, is seeking to open a Middle East office here.

"We have a lot of friends in Christians who believe in the Bible. And what they say to me is that in the Bible, there is no Green Line," Nachman says, referring to Israel's pre-1967 borders. "No Occupied Territories and no West Bank ... only land promised to Israel."

Palestinians see the settlements as illegal. Successive American administrations have declared them obstacles to peace. Israelis themselves have mixed emotions on the matter, with about half of them subscribing to the viewpoint that it's better to freeze settlement growth than to jeopardize peace talks.

Even the United Jewish Appeal, the mainstream American Jewish organization that raises funds for Israel, refuses to allocate money to projects over the Green Line. Christian Zionists like Ted Beckett, who set up the adopt-a-settlement program, says they have it all wrong.

"We believe that Christians share a biblical mandate to support the resettlement of Israel," he says. "The liberal Jewish establishment thinks Clinton is the best friend Israel ever had, but we don't agree and we think he's pressuring Israel."

Part of the contradiction in the strong ties between Netanyahu and other Likud members with US fundamentalists is that many American Jews are concerned about the rise of affiliated movements, such as the Christian Coalition, out of fear of intolerance for religious diversity and legalized prayer in public schools.

Nachman says that's not his problem. "I live in Israel. I don't live in America, and I'm not involved in American domestic problems. For me, Jerry Falwell is better than Peace Now," the Israeli group that strongly opposes settlement expansion.

Bobby Brown, Netanyahu's adviser and liaison to American Jews and Christians, says the March meeting with Mr. Falwell was not the orchestrated rebuff to Clinton the press perceived. But Netanyahu does meet with Christian leaders "whenever he can" and has nurtured ties for years.

"He makes it clear that he doesn't endorse or oppose their domestic policies, but he does endorse support for the state of Israel," says Mr. Brown. "In general we have a very strong relationship with them.... We don't discourage donations, but we don't steer donations toward anything political, just toward humanitarian needs."

He says the swell of support for Israel in Congress is not a product only of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "There's [also] a growing trend in Congress of Christians who are aware of their biblical connections," Brown says.

Netanyahu's office alone receives between 250 and 300 letters a week from Christian supporters around the world. Not all evangelicals are imbued with unconditional support for Netanyahu or settlements.

"There is an image of unanimity in evangelical circles on this subject, which belies the fact that most evangelicals are ... foremost interested in peace in Middle East," says Richard Cizik, an analyst at the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington.

"I think Netanyahu, seeing support for his policies, took that support and ran with it," he says.

In contrast, he estimates, most evangelical Christians probably haven't thought through the issue of settlements and their impact on reaching a final peace deal with the Palestinians.

Some Israelis resent that people in faraway lands give encouragement to settlements they vehemently oppose. But no one seems as angry with such support as Palestinian Christians, who get most of their backing from Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Audeh Rantisi, an Anglican minister in Ramallah, calls Christian Zionists "heretics" who are standing in the way of the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"They should wake up these televangelists who have become part of our destruction," he says. "Jerry Falwell ... [is] not a Christian at all. They have sold their souls to Zionism."

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