A Very Mixed Marriage
Evangelical Christians lining up to fight for Israel maybe an unmovable obstacle to Bush’s ‘Roadmap’
By Howard Fineman and Tamara Lipper
June 2 issue — It’s a landmark in the history of strange bedfellows: Tom DeLay says kaddish. It happened last February, the day the space shuttle Columbia fell apart. Among the dead astronauts was an Israeli, Ilan Ramon. In Florida, at the Boca Raton Resort, some big machers had gathered to hear a speech by House Republican leader DeLay, an evangelical Christian from Sugar Land, Texas. Mixing Churchill and the Bible, DeLay talked of a destiny shared by America and Israel. He asked for “divine assistance” in protecting both. In closing, to the astonishment of his audience, he recited—in Hebrew—the last lines of the Jewish prayer for the dead. The crowd, many in tears, joined in. (DeLay had been coached by a Jewish former staffer.) “It was quite a moment,” said Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who was there.
QUITE AN UNDERSTATEMENT. Though they welcomed him as an ardent supporter of Israel, many in the audience at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference were wary of DeLay’s view on a host of social issues—he’s pro-life, anti-gay-rights, pro-voucher, pro-gun, pro-school-prayer. Nor are they fond of his occasional declaration that what America needs most is more Christians in office. “Some would argue that it’s a mistake for Jews to get into bed with the religious right,” said Jess Hordes of the Anti-Defamation League.
Too late. Indeed, these bedfellows aren’t strangers anymore, which presents George W. Bush with a new opportunity—and a new risk. Opening another front in his war on terror, the president has launched an effort to coax Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. As Bush prepares for his trip to the G8 summit in France, there is talk he’ll tack on a trip to the Middle East. But the “Roadmap” he wants to pursue there runs not only through the Byzantine byways of the Levant, but along the political freeways of America. If he is at all serious, Bush eventually will hit a potentially impenetrable roadblock at home: the deepening alliance between Jewish supporters of Israel and the growing ranks of Christian Zionists.
Simply put, the administration won’t be able to lean hard on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon without being attacked by two blocs it cares very much about as the 2004 election approaches. Eager to capitalize on Bush’s standing as a war commander and a friend of Israel’s, White House strategists hope to double the size of Bush’s Jewish vote. Still, the numbers there, however pivotal in places such as Florida, are small. Much more is at stake among the nation’s 50 million evangelicals. Pressuring the Israelis also risks incurring the wrath—perhaps expressed in thundering, Biblical terms—of activists who claim to speak for that constituency, which the White House hopes will turn out in record numbers next year. “We are going to watch the Road-map very carefully,” Jerry Falwell told NEWSWEEK.
In April 2002, Christian Zionists were infuriated when the president, in a Rose Garden speech after a particularly heinous suicide bombing in Israel, seemed to equate Palestinian terrorism with the Israeli Army’s actions on the West Bank. Not only did he not call for the ouster of Yasir Arafat (a goal of hard-liners for years), Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region to meet with the Palestinian. “That was more than those of us who support Israel could take,” said Gary Bauer, a leading Christian Zionist.
A plague of e-mails and letters descended upon the White House. Engineered by Bauer, Falwell, Pat Robertson and others, several hundred thousand messages flooded the administration, urging it to lay off Sharon and jettison Arafat. In their regular conference call with the White House, evangelical leaders made the same case. “Well, let’s just say that the Middle East comes up during most of these calls,” says Falwell. Other—perhaps more powerful—voices chimed in: congressional leaders and neoconservatives in and out of the administration. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer soon was calling Sharon a “man of peace.”
Having heard the message in April, the White House responded more fully in June 2002, when the president launched the Roadmap concept. Though the new Zionist alliance had serious questions—especially about putting the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem up for negotiation—they were thrilled that Bush told Arafat to go. Diplomatically, the move made sense. Politically, it was no accident. Indeed, NEWSWEEK has learned, political adviser Karl Rove was involved in reviewing drafts of both of Bush’s major addresses on the Middle East. Senior administration officials say Rove merely “noodled” the “phrasing” of the speeches.
But in the Middle East, every noodle is important. A former senior Bush administration official says that proposed language favorable to the Palestinian cause was “walked back” after the speeches were reviewed by Vice President Dick Cheney, national-security adviser Condi Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Rove. According to the former official, Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, defended the edits. In one conversation, Hadley said that the speeches needed, among other things, to be politically viable. (Through a spokeswoman, Hadley strongly denied that politics was involved.)
Still, there’s no doubt the White House is aware of the new Zionist alliance, a typical American marriage of faith, principle and convenience. American Jews who see Israel’s survival as a paramount issue are looking for support. Coming to meet them are the evangelicals, who tend to believe that the “Covenant of Abraham” promised the Jews their entire ancient homeland—including all the modern-day West Bank—forever. Many (though not all) evangelicals believe that Jesus won’t return until the Jewish state is fully re-established, including in Jerusalem.
Mere politics is involved, too. Conservative Christians want to shed their image of intolerance. “They’re tired of being branded anti-Semites,” says Grover Norquist, a conservative activist. GOP leaders bless the marriage, and hope to get it into a Big Tent strategy for 2004. There is evidence that a number of major Jewish donors—longtime Democrats—are covering their bets if not switching sides, especially in New York, where the shock of 9-11 adds urgency to the war on terror and to Bush’s popularity among Jews.
After private assurances from Bush, Sharon late last week made a show of accepting the Roadmap in concept, if not in its particulars. But the new Zionists are taking no chances. Three weeks ago Bauer was warned by allies in Israel’s government—one of them was Tourism Minister Benny Elon, a source told NEWSWEEK—that Bush was about to pressure Sharon. Bauer and others swung into action. At a conference in Washington, speaker after speaker denounced the document as a “Roadmap to hell.” Bauer organized a letter to Bush from two dozen evangelical leaders, warning that any attempt to be “evenhanded” between Israel and the Palestinians would be “morally reprehensible.” “If they do anything other than make Jerusalem the capital of Israel, they would be messing with the word and the power of God,” Robertson told NEWSWEEK. DeLay pitched in, too. Speaking to Jewish political activists in Washington last week, he said, “Israel is not the problem in the Middle East. Israel is the solution.” He spoke no Hebrew this time, but it still sounded like a prayer.
Maybe these evangelicals are hacked off because Bush is fiddling around with end times biblical prophecy. In fact Robertson says “If they do anything other than make Jerusalem the capital of Israel, they would be messing with the word and the power of God."