WASHINGTON –The largest annual gathering of evangelical Christian supporters of Israel will take place virtually in June, days before the July 1 date set by the Israeli to begin annexing parts of the West Bank.
The annual conference of Christians United for Israel, which is usually held in Washington, will be a “virtual summit” this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The organization, which represents millions of evangelical supporters of Israel, released a video on Saturday promoting its virtual gathering, scheduled for late June. The most senior Trump administration official currently listed as a speaker at the summit is David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel. Other senior administration officials are also expected to speak.
Last year's event, which was held in Washington, included appearances by Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who was national security adviser at the time.
Christians United for Israel describes itself as a bipartisan organization and the largest pro-Israel group in America. Its founder, Texas pastor John Hagee, gave a speech at the ceremony in 2018 where Trump celebrated moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He has said that “there has never been a more pro-Israeli president than Donald Trump.”
The most senior Israeli official currently listed as a speaker at the conference is the ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who has regularly spoken at CUFI events over the years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously video messages to CUFI gatherings, telling a CUFI audience in 2017 that “Israel has no greater friends” than evangelical Christians.
The speakers representing the Trump administration at this year's event are expected to likely make some announcement on plans to annex areas in the West Bank. Friedman said earlier this month that the administration will give Israel a green light to annex all the settlements in the West Bank in the near future.
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The CUFI summit will be the first major event for a pro-Israeli organization to be turned into a virtual gathering. In early March, AIPAC, the largest lobby group supporting Israel in the U.S., held its annual conference in Washington, drawing approximately 18,000 participants from around the United States and the world, despite the growing fears over the coronavirus crisis.
In the days following the conference, participants who returned to their homes tested positive for coronavirus in New York, California, Ohio and Washington D.C., as well as in Toronto, Canada. The conference took place before any U.S. state had issued a stay-at-home order or closed schools.
Evangelical Christians are estimated to be around 25 percent of voters in U.S. presidential elections, and in 2016 approximately 80 percent of them supported Trump. His promises to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal played a major role in attracting evangelical support, alongside his promises to appoint conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This year’s conference will be the last opportunity for senior officials working for Trump to address a large gathering of evangelical supporters of Israel ahead of the November election. Pollsters and political analysts believe that Trump will need to keep his high level of evangelical support from 2016 in order to secure re-election, and that any drop in support for him among this group could be dangerous for his prospects.
A poll published two weeks ago by the Pew Research Center showed that white evangelical Christians give Trump a better grade on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic than any other religious and demographic group in America. In the poll, 75 percent of respondents who identified as white evangelical Christians said that Trump has handled the crisis in an excellent or good way. Among Jews, for comparison, only 33 percent said the same.
Even that poll, however, contained one worrisome piece of information for the president: an earlier poll from the same institution, conducted in March, showed 81 percent of white evangelicals having a positive opinion on his handling of the crisis. In between March and May, in other words, his number slightly decreased.