A heavenly match: Bush and the Christian Zionists
Part 5 in a series of 5 articles on Christian
Zionism: Part 1 - Part 2
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10/12/03: (Daily Star) When Israel responded to the Netanya suicide bombing in March 2002 by reinvading the West Bank and besieging Jenin, the ensuing international outcry led US President George W. Bush to order Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces from Palestinian areas. Bush sent a strong message to Sharon at an April 2 news conference: “Withdraw! Withdraw your troops immediately!”
At that point longtime Christian Zionist spokesman and pro-Israel advocate Jerry Falwell and other Christian Zionist leaders, working closely with pro-Israel groups, used their media and internet outlets to mobilize their constituencies to deliver tens of thousands of telephone calls, e-mails and letters to the president, telling him to refrain from pressuring Sharon and to allow Israel to finish its job. In the aftermath of that campaign, Bush did not utter another word of opposition to Israeli military actions. Falwell told the CBS news program 60 Minutes that after the incident, Israel could count on Bush to “do the right thing for Israel every time.” The lesson was that even when the Bush administration criticized Israel, the Israelis, conscious of the extensive support they enjoy in the US Congress, would not take it seriously. As Falwell said: “The Bible Belt is Israel’s safety net in the US.”
Christian Zionist organizations and the pro-Israel lobby are among the significant special interest groups whose interests have converged since Bush’s election to shape the administration’s policy toward the Middle East. In some respects, most of these groups and political tendencies were lined up and waiting to merge their ambitions even before the election. The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, provided the spark for this.
Among these interest groups, of which we can broadly identify six, is, first of all, the right wing of the Republican Party. During his election campaign, Bush, with the help of former members of the Reagan administration, discarded the Middle East strategy of the first Bush administration, which advocated a more nuanced, multilateral and collaborative approach to the UN and to international law in resolving conflicts. By 2000, a shift had taken place in the Republican Party. It began embracing the doctrines of neoconservative ideologues who advocated US unilateralism and favored military solutions over diplomacy. This more aggressive approach was put into action after Sept. 11, and to no one’s surprise, Israel’s war against the Palestinians and its other enemies was soon linked to the US “war on terrorism.”
A second interest group was comprised of neoconservatives, among them Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who submitted a strategy paper during the first Bush administration in 1991 advocating unilateralist and pre-emptive doctrines. Baker and advisers to the president, who viewed the document as too extreme, buried it. Eventually a larger group of Reagan hawks found various means to express their displeasure with the Republican mainstream and leadership.
That displeasure grew during the Clinton era, particularly with regard to the administration’s Middle East policy. In 1996, the Project for a New American Century was born, based on neoconservative doctrine, and the same year several neocon leading lights issued a strategy paper for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud candidate for prime minister in Israel’s elections, titled A Clean Break. The paper recommended that Israel abandon the Oslo Accords and adopt a strategy of military aggression toward the Palestinians and Arab countries. The strategy helped win Netanyahu victory and became the modus operandi not only of his government but also that of Sharon. Bush’s election and Sept. 11 gave the neocons the opportunity to shift US foreign policy toward more military, imperial and unilateralist approaches.
Two other interest groups are multinational construction firms and the petroleum industry on the one hand, and the arms industry on the other: Access to high quality and inexpensive oil reserves has long been a primary strategic US goal in the Middle East. Multinational companies have also recently become important political players in Iraq’s reconstruction efforts, including Halliburton, an oil company whose former CEO was Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Bechtel. The US arms industry has also benefited from US Middle East policy, particularly after Sept. 11, thanks to the heightened security atmosphere, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the post-war situations in both countries. Israel, meanwhile, has long been a favorite of US arms producers.
A fifth group is made up of the pro-Israel lobby and think tanks. The lobby works closely with a variety of special interest groups, including the Christian right, to exercise considerable influence over the direction of US Middle East policy. By bringing relentless pressure and a steady flow of policy recommendations to elected officials on a daily basis, pro-Israel organizations outpace counterinitiatives, whether from Middle Eastern interest groups, academia, or mainstream churches. It is crucial to understand that the range of pro-Israel groups does not merely include Jews, so that the appellation the “Jewish lobby” is simply inaccurate.
Proof of this is the existence of a sixth interest group whose interests were also served during the Bush administration: fundamentalist Christian Zionists. During the past two or three decades, the conservative Evangelical movement has been the fastest growing sector within the American Christian churches. Estimates of the number of evangelicals range from 100-130 million, out of which 20-25 percent could be classified as fundamentalist some 20-26 million Americans. Of the fundamentalists, most, but not all, are inclined to support the Christian Zionist position. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center noted that 58 percent of evangelicals believe in the Battle of Armageddon, an indicator that they would be predisposed to Christian Zionism.
Today, Christian Zionists form the largest base of support for pro-Israeli interests in the US. Working since the late 1970s, the pro-Israel lobby has mobilized both economic and political support for Israel among fundamentalists. For example, a relatively new organization, Stand for Israel, has emerged in the past two years to work closely with AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobby, to support and hold rallies on behalf of Sharon’s policies. Last April 2, Stand for Israel held a convention and lobbying day immediately after the annual AIPAC convention, inviting many of the same speakers and adopting several of the same policies. Former US Presidential candidate Gary Bauer, a co-founder of Stand for Israel, addressed the convention and urged attendees to oppose the Palestinian-Israeli “road map” and an exchange of land for peace.
Bauer declared: “Whoever sits in the confines of Washington, and suggests to the people of Israel that they have to give up more land in exchange for peace, that’s an obscenity.”
Others present at the dinner reflected the intimate relationship the Bush administration has with the Christian right and the pro-Israel lobby. This included US Attorney General John Ashcroft, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Daniel Ayalon, Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land, and House of Representatives Minority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay and Congressman Tom Lantos, perennial advocates of Israel’s interests in the House, received the first annual Friend of Israel Award for their success in leading Congress to pass House Resolution 392, restating the strong solidarity of the US with Israel in their joint stance against international terrorism.
Pro-Israel groups and fundamentalist Christian groups have brought significant political and economic pressures to bear on Congress and the Bush presidency. Their support for Sharon’s militant Likud ideology are unquestioned and usually supported by selected Biblical footnotes. Policies such as increased Israeli settlements, the pre-emptive assassination of Palestinian leaders, Israeli sovereignty over all of historic Palestine (especially Jerusalem), and, if it occurs, the expulsion of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (and indeed the mass expulsion of large sectors of the Palestinian population), would find ready support within the Christian right.
Donald Wagner is professor of religion and Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He wrote this commentary, the last in a series of five on Christian Zionism, for THE DAILY STAR
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