Rapture - or Raptor

Parliamentary lobbyists in Israel promoting ties with U.S. evangelical communities revel in the fact that their Christian friends have power, money − and a growing influence on life here.

Contrary to the contention that "Bibi is good for the Jews," which has yet to be definitively proven, it is already clear that the Christians are good for Bibi − Benjamin Netanyahu. Last Monday, at the height of the drama over the appointment of new Likud ministers, Netanyahu found a few minutes to go to the lecture hall at the Knesset to meet with the evangelical preacher John Hagee at an event organized by "the parliamentary lobby for relations with Christians."

The sparse attendance in the hall, about 20 people in total, certainly did not justify the presence of a former prime minister − especially when the corridors of the Knesset were bursting with activity. But Netanyahu, a man of vision, sees far beyond the current moment; his little jaunt to the event was not only a gesture of courtesy toward the guest, whom he knows from his days as prime minister. It was an important meeting with one of the prominent leaders of 70 million evangelical Americans, with whom Hagee speaks twice a day via some 150 television stations throughout America. At least once, Netanyahu himself appeared on the screen at his side. That appearance, which was particularly successful, is periodically rebroadcast.

"This is enormous power," Netanyahu said when leaving the meeting and returning to the mundane world of the Knesset. "Do you think that without the power of these people, Israel would enjoy such support from the American administration?" Or, in other words: Netanyahu, whose standing in public opinion in Israel is currently at a nadir, is turning toward his traditional strongholds.

For tens of millions of American evangelicals, Ariel Sharon − who executed the disengagement plan − is not the right prime minister for Israel, and is also not right for them. But Netanyahu is. True, they do not vote in elections here, but they navigate from afar. They have power and they have money, and through their direct influence on the political system in the United States, they also have indirect influence on the arena in Israel.

Underground cellThe event in the Knesset hall was like a meeting of an extreme underground cell. Even MK Yuri Stern ?(Yisrael Beiteinu?), the chairman of the lobby, and National Union MKs Benny Elon ?(a member of the lobby?) and Effi Eitam and Zvi Hendel ?(who arrived as guests?) sound like spokesmen for Gush Shalom in comparison to the speech by Hagee, who controls a huge empire and knows precisely what God wants. Neither of them, of course, are very enthusiastic about Sharon or Bush.

"We believe God owns the land and has deeded it to the Jewish people − a deed that cannot be canceled or amended − not by the road map to peace, not by the EU, not even by the president of the United States," Hagee declared. He also suggested that God will settle accounts with any nation that pressures Israel to divide the Land of Israel: "I do not consider it an accident that the very same week Jews were driven out of Gaza and placed in tent cities in Israel, the hand of God, through Hurricane Katrina, drove Americans out of their homes to live in tent cities in America."

The last sentence, which links the hurricane to the disengagement, was ultimately deleted from the speech Hagee delivered at the Knesset; it only appears in its written version. It is no wonder that his warm words were deeply appreciated by his listeners: "As someone who spent 30 years on the battlefields, where a person needs the support of comrades, every time I listen to you I feel like a warrior on the battlefield who has a good and faithful friend behind him," said Brigadier General ?(Ret.?) Effi Eitam.

"I understood from your speech that in order to love Jews, you need to be a Christian," exalted Zvi Hendel, who was introduced as a victim of Gush Katif.

At least in part, this great love for Israel derives from the evangelical concept of "rapture" − the theological phenomenon unique to this stream of Christianity. Rapture is expected to follow the War of Gog and Magog, in which Jesus will again appear to his believers and carry them to heaven. Our Jewish readers, by the way, will not be among those saved, except for a small group that recognizes Jesus' divinity. All this will happen after several prerequisite conditions come to pass, including the return of the Jewish people to its undivided land.

This theological concept does not trouble the religious members of the Knesset lobby, including it deputy chairman, Yair Peretz ?(Shas?). They apparently assume that when that fateful day arrives, it will become clear that our God is more valiant than theirs. The three members of the lobby from Shinui ?(MKs Eliezer Sandberg, Ilan Shalgi and Hemi Doron?) who attended the meeting are naturally of the opinion that God is not relevant to this whole story. Deputy Agriculture Minister Gila Gamliel ?(Likud?), who was recently selected in Texas, alongside the famous American preacher Kay Arthur, to serve as the president of the women's council of the lobby, is also unperturbed by the prospect of the Apocalypse.

'Signs' documentedIn any case, Israel plays a very important role in evangelical theology, as explained clearly on Hagee's Web site ?(www.jhm.org?). On various rapture sites, which list the phenomena that bring Judgment Day near ?(such as natural disasters and excessive liberalism?), the current events in Israel are closely documented among the "signs." Already a year ago, during their annual Sukkot gathering in Israel, the evangelicals unilaterally disengaged from Sharon, who sabotaged the grand plan with the withdrawal from Gaza. On his site, Hagee explains to his followers who wonder about this support for Israel: "Christians cannot explain their existence without Judaism." And: "The land has never belonged to the people who now call themselves Palestinians ... there has never been a nation called Palestine."

"Their theology is changing," says Stern, who started the lobby about two years ago. "There are also various groups among the evangelicals, and they are the only stream in Christianity that has consistently grown over the years. The liberal and social-democratic forces in the world who supported Israel in the past have turned their backs on Israel and we need to find new allies."

According to him, "From this perspective, one of the goals of the lobby is to upgrade the status of Christians in the Israeli establishment. The time has come to clearly state that Christian support, based on religion and shared values, is very important. At the moment, a common political interest has also developed. For most of them, these withdrawals from the territories are incomprehensible, and also contrary to the eternal mission of the Jewish people and their faith."

The evangelicals are, without a doubt, allies who are readily available and growing in number. There are already 600 million evangelicals in the world. While the lobby's initial contacts were mainly based on members of the stream from the United States, it is now a worldwide network that also includes Europe and the Far East. The connection with the Christians in the European parliament is not really taking off, because they fear being perceived as "remotely controlled" by the Knesset.

In Asia, there are fewer inhibitions. Lobby members were already in the Philippines, where the top political echelon is evangelical, and they also traveled to Seoul in July to meet with over 1,000 evangelicals. This event was organized by the Jerusalem Summit, a right-wing organization supported by the oligarch Michael Cherney, a close associate of Yisrael Beiteinu's chairman, Avigdor Lieberman.

"Cherney is not involved in our projects," Stern claims. "The Jerusalem Summit gave me inspiration for the lobby and we have several joint projects, and that's it. The truth is that all of this activity does not bring us political gain in Israel. Even if 10 million Christians support me, how will this help me? But I still think that this is a good activity for Israel's benefit and that the left is wrong not to participate in it."But not only the left in Israel is unenthusiastic about these new allies. The Jews of America feel similarly. Only this week Haaretz published statements by the head of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, Abe Foxman, who warned that the Christian right wing in his country has become extremist and aggressive, threatening the principle of separation of church and state.

Thus another axis of confrontation has developed: the needs and desires of the Israeli right, which provides indirect reinforcement for the political representatives of the extreme conservative right in America, versus the fears of American Jews. Stern dismisses these fears. American Jews, he says, "are afraid because they are so accustomed to being hated by them that they do not believe that there are Christians who simply love them. I told liberal Jews that they are sacrificing Israel on the altar of freedom of choice for abortions," he says. "Compared to these principles, the survival of Israel is more important."

In general, it seems that the Knesset lobby is conducting an independent foreign policy, disconnected from that of official Israel. Among the lobby's declared goals is mobilizing the support of these Christian groups to transfer the embassies of their countries to Jerusalem - including first and foremost the U.S. embassy. In line with the principle of reciprocity, there is also something else: Just this week, the foreign press reported that Israel intends to transfer to the Vatican the site of the Last Supper on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred sites for Christianity. In a private meeting with Hagee, MK Benny Elon promised the evangelical preacher to help prevent the handing over of this site to the Catholics.