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Born-Again Zionists

Christian conservatives are teaming with hard-line Jewish groups to transform American policy toward Israel.

But it is only in the past year—since the election of Bush and the attacks of September 11—that conservative Christians have put support for Israel near the top of their political agenda, helping to push the Bush administration to side firmly with Sharon and to pressure the Palestinians to replace Yasser Arafat. Well-known figures like Falwell and Pat Robertson have been at the forefront, but dozens of other evangelical leaders and organizations are active across the country. McAteer runs a Memphis-based political network that raises money for the Christian right and introduces candidates to Israeli leaders; in April, he and five other evangelicals sent a letter to Bush urging him to "stand with our friend and ally Israel as they attempt to defeat the same forces of terrorism that we have been battling since September 11." A minister near Denver, George Morrison, raises support for Israel through his church and helped organize a national conference in June attended by 600 evangelicals. Also attending the event was Esther Levens, an elderly Jewish woman from Kansas City who brings together disparate groups of Christian Zionists through the National Unity Coalition for Israel. Levens founded the group after she saw a poll declaring that 70 percent of Americans supported Israel. "I knew that only 2 percent of Americans were Jewish," she says, "so I thought, 'Why not go and try to find the other 68 percent?'"

Some conservative Christians have visions of growing even more influential than AIPAC when it comes to American policy in the Mideast. Richard Hellman, a former GOP Senate staffer and born-again Pentecostal, hopes to organize at least 7 million followers as members of his lobbying group, Christians' Israel Public Action Campaign. "Someone once referred to us as AIPAC's little echo," Hellman says with a laugh. "Maybe we'll turn out to be the echo that roared."

Lobbying by conservative Christians has already proved vital to Israel, especially during its recent military campaign. Marshall Wittmann, a former top lobbyist with the Christian Coalition and veteran of the elder Bush's administration, credits evangelicals with getting their message directly to the White House and says that they are in con-stant communication with Bush's political director, Karl Rove. "These folks are fervently pro-Israel within the high councils of the Republican Party, and their views have probably sharpened the president's own thinking," Wittmann says. "He personally identifies with the born-again evangelicals within his own party."

Unlike his father, who is generally viewed as the president whose policies were least sympathetic to Israel, Bush has taken an increasingly hard-line stance against the Palestinians. In April, the White House issued what was widely seen as a halfhearted call for Sharon to withdraw his forces from the West Bank. When the Israeli leader refused to do so, the administration continued to hold Arafat responsible for almost all of the violence between the two sides, eventually calling for his removal as head of the Palestinian Authority.

Of course, the administration's pro-Israel stance is not entirely the result of evangelical lobbying. Israel has long been the largest recipient of American aid, receiving $3 billion last year. "The evangelicals are important," says former CIA director James Woolsey, an adviser to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, "but less in a political sense than as a reflection of the widespread support that Israel has in this country."

Yet with the election of Bush, evangelical activists enjoy unprecedented influence among top administration officials. "No one has a monopoly on the ear of this president, but he is more receptive to the pro-Israel message than his predecessors," says Rand Fishbein, a lobbyist and consultant for defense contractors and the U.S. Army. "And in this administration, there are more avenues to get that message to decision makers." Conservative Christians have especially close ties to a group of hawks within the administration led by Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, two of the highest-ranking Pentagon officials after Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Feith, perhaps the administration's most fervent supporter of Israel, has said the Israelis should reoccupy all lands ceded to the Palestinian Authority, even though "the price in blood... would be high." Before joining the administration, Feith was honorary policy chairman of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, and chaired the board of a pro-Israel think tank called the Center for Security Policy.

Frank Gaffney Jr., an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan who runs the Center for Security Policy, notes that hard-line supporters of Israel now find their views welcomed at the White House. "It's the old issue of pushing on an open door," says Gaffney. "You are seeing American government policy being profoundly influenced by beliefs that are shared by the pushers outside and the people on the inside."

CHRISTIAN EVANGELICALS also wield considerable influence in Congress, where they have won support for Israel even among lawmakers who represent states with relatively small Jewish pop-ulations. The two top GOP leaders in the House—Majority Leader Dick Armey and Whip Tom DeLay—are among Israel's staunchest advocates on Capitol Hill, despite coming from Texas, a state where Jews represent less than 1 percent of the population. DeLay agrees with hawkish Israelis that the West Bank and Golan Heights are part of Israel rather than occupied territories, and Armey has advocated forcibly removing Palestinians from the West Bank and relocating them to Arab countries.

Lobbying by conservative Christians has also provided GOP leaders in the Senate with a way to wrap their support for Israel in biblical terms. In March, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma gave a speech on the Senate floor in which he said that he supports Israel because it is a strategic ally, a "roadblock" to terrorism, and "because God said so." There's probably no one in Con-gress closer to Israel than conservative Sen-ator Sam Brownback of Kansas—a state with 14,500 Jews, 0.5 percent of the population, most of whom haven't voted for him. A former Brownback staffer, Shari Dollinger, now handles outreach to the evangelical community for the Israeli Embassy. "Christian conservatives provide the political base for most Republicans," says one GOP staffer. "Many of these guys, especially the leadership, are real believers in this stuff, and so are their constituents."

Backed by evangelical Christians, conservatives in Congress have worked to drive American policy in the Middle East to the right, taking even more of a pro-Israel stance than the administration. In April, Secretary of State Colin Powell met privately with Senate and House conservatives and asked them to withdraw resolutions in support of Israel's incursion into the West Bank, saying they would complicate efforts to broker peace talks. Votes on the resolutions were postponed for a week, but were then approved despite White House objections.

Liberal Jewish groups, who favor a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, are alarmed by the political impact of evangelicals. "They see any concession as a threat to Israel, and in this way they strengthen the hard-liners in Israel and the United States," says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "That may make it difficult for the peace process to go forward."

But on the whole, American Jewish groups have increasingly accepted Christian support. In 1999, when Falwell declared that the Antichrist is alive and Jewish, the Anti-Defamation League charged that his remarks were "rooted in Christian theological extremism" and bordered "on anti-Semitism at best and [are] anti-Semitic at worst." Recently, however, the ADL has remained silent on Falwell and in May ran an advertisement in major newspapers that reprinted an article written by Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, that was titled "We People of Faith Stand Firmly With Israel." And in July, the Zionist Organization of America honored Pat Robertson for his work on behalf of Israel.

The group's president, Morton Klein, insists that anti-Jewish sentiment among Christian conservatives is mostly a thing of the past. "You find hints of anti-Semitism among many non-Jewish groups, and a few evangelicals may have anti-Jewish feelings," he says. "But I have spoken to dozens of Christian Zionist groups and I have never encountered any anti-Semitism, and I'm a child of Holocaust survivors. Instead, I have found a great love of the Jewish people. I'm thrilled they are helping Israel and I think they are doing a great job. They are more pro-Israel and pro-Zionist than most Jews."

Jewish leaders also tend to downplay the theological beliefs of Christian Zionists, many of whom believe that the Jews will eventually be destroyed in Armageddon. In fact, the more devout fundamentalists say that once Jews establish complete control of the Holy Land, Christ will stage his Second Coming; then Christians will be "raptured" to heaven, and many Jews who survive the ensuing apocalypse will convert to Christianity, thus fulfilling God's original cove-nant with the Jews.

That's a risk that Jewish leaders like Morton Klein are happy to take, given the political clout of evangelicals. "I am willing to make this deal: If they continue to support Israel's prosperity, security, and survival, then if Jesus comes back in the future I will join their parade," Klein says. "Hey, if I was wrong, no problem."

EVANGELICAL LEADERS are waging a two-front campaign for Israel, lobbying Washington while rallying financial and political support across the country. The day after attending the prayer breakfast at the Israeli Embassy, Ed McAteer returns to Memphis, where a pro-Israel rally has been organized by the Memphis Jewish Federation, a local charity that provides social services. Unlike their counterparts who had organized similar rallies in New York and Boston, Jewish leaders here in the buckle of the Bible Belt have reached out to the city's Christian leaders for support. "It's very important for all faiths to know the issues that unite us," Andrew Groveman, president-elect of the Jewish Federation, says before the rally. "We're all good people of the Book. It's just a question about whether it is a different Book."

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