In the summer of 2019, thousands of evangelical Christians gathered in Washington for a tour de force of political influence. That year’s annual summit of Christians United for Israel featured speeches by some of the most powerful people in the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Then-President Donald Trump’s national security advisor at the time, John Bolton, also appeared before the conference, as did his influential ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt. There were also speeches by four prominent Republican senators and, live from Jerusalem, a video appearance by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a hero to Israel’s evangelical supporters in the United States.
Things looked very different this week when the evangelical organization held its 2021 summit in front of a much smaller crowd in Dallas, Texas. CUFI chose this format due to COVID-19’s continued spread across the U.S., and stated in a press release that it was “limited in size but was no less impactful than in years past.” Supporters were invited to watch the speeches online.
Compared to 2019, when five senior Trump officials spoke at the conference, no representative of the Biden administration took the stage this year. The most prominent speakers were Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and former Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who recently visited Israel together with CUFI’s leader, pastor John Hagee. Both of them attacked Biden’s participation in international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and spoke nostalgically of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.
The most important speech at the summit, however, was a short video sent from Israel. The speaker was Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who spoke for less than five minutes – much less than most of the other speakers – but started his speech with an incredibly important message for those assembled in Dallas and watching online. “Israel has a new government,” he said, “but the country is the same.”
Over the past 12 years, evangelical supporters of Israel in the U.S., arguably the most influential supporters of the Jewish state anywhere in the world, have gotten used to almost automatically associating Israel with Netanyahu. The Likud leader adopted a controversial policy in his dozen years as premier, giving preference to evangelicals over American Jews, whom he considered irredeemably liberal and increasingly distant from Israel.
At first, he whispered it in private conversations, saying that American Jews would lose their influence within a generation due to growing rates of assimilation while evangelicals would grow ever more powerful. In the last few years, he began saying it out loud, declaring that Israel has “no better friends” than evangelicals – a statement that was perceived as a slight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the U.S. Jewish establishment.
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Netanyahu’s decline since 2019, with four straight failed attempts to form a stable governing coalition, never impacted his image among evangelicals, who view him with levels of admiration reserved for only one other politician, Trump.
CUFI immediately distanced itself from those comments and was quick to bless the new government in Jerusalem.
By inviting Lapid to be the most prominent Israeli speaker at its summit, the organization went a step further in making it clear to its members and supporters that Israel without Netanyahu is still Israel, even if some evangelicals are having a hard time accepting that reality.
Lapid acted correctly by starting his message to CUFI with words of reassurance. He basically told them: Netanyahu is gone, but if you truly support and love Israel, that shouldn’t make any difference to you, since it is still “the land of history and modernity, of faith and science, the land that flows with milk and honey.”
He emphasized that the government “works for all of Israel,” including those who didn’t vote for it. While there were probably very few Israeli voters watching the speech, Lapid likely knew that had those listening been given the right to vote in Israel, many would have voted for his defeated rival.
Lapid’s speech showed the new government’s eagerness to keep the strong ties with the evangelical world that had flourished under Netanyahu. But the relationship will still have to overcome serious obstacles. One of them was put on display by Cruz, who spoke a night before Lapid. After praising Netanyahu, he expressed skepticism that the new government would, in his words, “have the strength to stand up to the Biden administration” over Iran.
This is one area where evangelical supporters of Israel will have to adjust to a new, post-Netanyahu reality: This Israeli government, unlike the ones that led Israel in the last 12 years, is firmly committed to staying out of internal U.S. politics and handling disagreements with the administration quietly, through diplomatic channels.
For Cruz, as a Republican politician who is planning three-and-a-half long years of resisting each and every step taken by the Biden administration, this is bad news. He would have loved to enlist Israel in his fight against the 46th president. But for anyone who truly cares about Israel, this is a policy decision that should be respected.
Evangelical voters in the U.S. are considered one of the most Republican-leaning voting blocs, and the majority of them supported Trump in his failed run against Biden last year. The reaction of pro-Israel evangelicals to the Bennett-Lapid government’s avoidance of a public, Netanyahu-style confrontation with Biden will be a major test for the future of the Israeli-evangelical alliance.