U.S. Evangelicals Put Their Faith in Netanyahu as Trump Readies Mideast Peace Plan

The U.S. president faces a Catch-22 with his ‘deal of the century’: Any plan that includes Israeli concessions could disappoint many of his evangelical supporters, but only a plan with real Israeli concessions has any chance of moving forward

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Evangelical Christians prying in Jerusalem, 2011.
Evangelical Christians prying in Jerusalem, 2011.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – For U.S. evangelical supporters of Israel, 2018 has been one of the best years in recent memory.

More than 75 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and for many of them, his policies on Israel were proof that their support had paid off. Over the past 11 months, they cheered as Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and provided the Netanyahu government with unlimited support at the United Nations.

Now, though, as the Trump administration finalizes its long-expected Middle East peace plan, the bond between Trump and the evangelical community could face a serious test.

Trump’s Mideast team has been working on the peace plan for more than 18 months. Last week, a White House official told Haaretz that the administration is aiming to release it within the next two months. On Sunday, Israel’s Channel 10 News reported about a “crucial” meeting in the White House that will determine when and how exactly the plan will be presented.

The Palestinian leadership has frequently accused Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner, and special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt, of being biased toward Israel. However, the administration has insisted for months that its plan will be fair toward the Palestinians, and that both sides will be required to make tough decisions once the plan becomes public.

If the plan does indeed include certain Israeli concessions, it could also create a dilemma for many in the U.S. evangelical community.

“It’s too early to say how evangelicals will respond to the plan, because we have no idea what will be the contents,” says Prof. Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar who has also conducted research on evangelical public opinion in recent years. “However, it could definitely be uncomfortable to some evangelicals if there are territorial concessions included in it.”

Bock told Haaretz this week that the evangelical community can be “generally divided” into two main groups regarding Israel: “There is a clear majority, between 70 to 80 percent, who strongly support Israel; and there is a sizable minority, perhaps between 20 to 30 percent, who are more critical of Israel.”

Evangelicals, it should be noted, comprise some 25 percent of the total U.S. population, which means that even small shifts in evangelical public opinion could influence millions of people.

There are also differing views on Israel and its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians among those Bock refers to as “the pro-Israeli majority.” “There are some who oppose any form of Israeli territorial concessions, and they believe Israel has a right to all the land and should never give it up,” Bock explains. “And then there are others who strongly support Israel, but also think something should be done to address the needs and concerns of the Palestinians.”

Trump and Netanyahu meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 26, 2018.Credit: \ CARLOS BARRIA/ REUTERS

Bock also notes that America’s tens of millions of evangelical Christians have different levels of knowledge and understanding when it comes to Israel’s political and security circumstances.

“You have a lot of people who love and support Israel, but they don’t necessarily have a very detailed knowledge of what’s happening in the country,” he says, adding that issues such as the settlements in the West Bank, the pre-1967 borders and the boundaries of Jerusalem aren’t necessarily part of how many evangelicals view the subject.

“There is enormous trust among most evangelical Christians in President Trump’s love and support for Israel,” says Joel Rosenberg, an evangelical author-activist who lives in Jerusalem. Rosenberg has participated in a number of headline-making meetings over the past year between evangelical leaders and Arab heads of state, including Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and, more recently, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Rosenberg told Haaretz this week that if the Trump peace plan can bring Israel closer to the broader Arab world, that would make many evangelicals more eager to support it.

“If this leads Arab countries to get closer to Israel, most American evangelicals will give Trump enormous credit for that,” Rosenberg explains. “It would be huge inside our community. Evangelicals overwhelmingly support peace. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

However, he concedes there are “different shades” within the evangelical world, and that “there are some evangelicals who think that if you support Israel, you should be against the Arabs and the Palestinians. But that’s not representative of all evangelicals. Most of us do care for the Palestinians and truly want to see peace and prosperity in the region,” he says.

It should be noted, though, that in the past certain evangelical leaders have strongly opposed attempts to promote a two-state solution, even when those attempts were supported or initiated by elected Israeli governments.

Giving peace plan a chance

Evangelical leaders such as Pastor John Hagee fought bitterly against past attempts by American presidents to promote peace plans that included Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and a division of Jerusalem. During his time in the White House, President Bill Clinton believed that Hagee and other evangelical leaders were coordinating their fight against his peace policies with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right.

Could such opposition from within the evangelical world take place under President Trump? “Trump has a real track record of pro-Israeli policy, and everyone can see that – it’s real,” says Rosenberg. “Obviously, if the Israeli government will strongly come out against his plan, that will give many evangelicals pause. But I think President Trump will have more leeway with his peace plan than some of his predecessors.”

A sign pointing toward the U.S. Embassy and a pro-Trump poster in Jerusalem paid for by evangelicals, May 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Rosenberg believes that if Trump’s plan “has a chance to bring peace and security, many will give it a chance.”

Robert Stearns, an evangelical pastor who has led hundreds of groups on visits to Israel over the years, also believes Trump could get evangelical support for policies that other presidents would have had a hard time selling to the community.

But he also notes that evangelicals will have some clear “red lines” in any peace plan. The most glaring one, in his view: Jerusalem.

“There is no way evangelicals will support a division of Jerusalem in a peace plan,” Stearns says. “It would be viewed as duplicitous. Why move the embassy if you then try to break the city in half?”

When asked to clarify if his view of a “United Jerusalem” includes not only the Old City and the neighborhoods around it but also more remote Palestinian neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, Stearns chooses his words carefully.

“If we’re talking about outlying areas in East Jerusalem that don’t affect the character of the city, that don’t include the main religious sites, that aren’t part of the security considerations – and they would potentially become some kind of Palestinian capital – perhaps that can be discussed. It’s up to the government of Israel to decide, not to us. But I think for most evangelicals, the integrity of the Old City and the areas around it, the religious sites, the areas people think of when they think of Jerusalem – those have to remain intact, accessible to all religions, and under Israeli sovereignty.”

Stearns stresses he has some personal views on how the conflict could be solved. He believes, for example, that even if Israel left some parts of the West Bank, Israeli settlers living there should be allowed to remain in their homes, “just like you have Arab citizens living in Israel.” But at the end of the day, he says, “most evangelicals will support the decisions of the Israeli government.”

The pastor notes that most evangelicals have the utmost respect for Netanyahu. If he were to come out against the Trump peace plan, that would have a strong impact, Stearns says. “I believe a majority of evangelicals will not support a plan if Netanyahu comes out against it. He is wildly popular among the majority of evangelicals. We have seen him lead Israel through difficult times. We appreciate his opinion when it comes to the security of the State of Israel,” Stearns adds.

A Palestinian protester holding a poster of President Donald Trump near the Gaza Strip border with Israel, September 7, 2018. The poster says: "We are returning in spite of you, Trump."Credit: Adel Hana,AP

So far, the Trump-Netanyahu relationship has been – at least publicly – a positive one. But if the peace plan were to trigger a confrontation between them, evangelicals could be forced to choose between two leaders who are both overwhelmingly popular among the community.

Bock says that while a plan that includes Israeli concessions “is not the default position of many evangelicals,” Trump could be uniquely situated to “lobby for it in the evangelical community,” building on his high level of support.

“Trump could make it more acceptable to some people,” he says. “We can’t say anything definitive – all of this is speculation at this point. But my gut feeling is, unless there is a really heated confrontation, Trump will remain popular among most evangelicals, who like his internal policies even more than his foreign policy,” Bock adds.

Both Bock and Stearns seemingly agree with Rosenberg’s analysis about the importance of broader Arab support for the peace plan.

“Many evangelicals would support a plan if they saw that it enhances the stability of Israel and its acceptance by other countries in the region,” Bock says. Stearns adds that “those of us who visit Israel more frequently, and are aware of the complexity of the region and the nuances of the conflict, are very encouraged to see Israel get closer to some of its neighbors in recent years. So if there is an opportunity to make genuine peace between Israel and some of these countries in the region, we’d be in favor of that.”

‘Fair and serious’ solutions required

Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, is part of the evangelical minority that Bock described as “more critical of Israel.” Her group opposes Israeli settlements in the West Bank and has spoken out against some of Trump’s policies that were celebrated by the majority of the evangelical community.

She says her main concern is that Trump’s peace plan will be “one-sided” and would therefore “fail at getting the support of the Palestinians, and also the Arab world.”

Cannon adds that “we’ve heard from Egyptian, Jordanian and other Arab diplomats in recent months that their countries aren’t being consulted on this plan. I will be very surprised if this doesn’t end up as a plan that clearly favors one side over the other. You can’t make one-sided peace.”

If, however, the peace plan will turn out to be “fair and serious,” Cannon believes most evangelicals – whether they are supporters or critics of Trump – will endorse it.

“I hope to be surprised. If Trump will call for a two-state solution and offer fair solutions to the other core issues of the conflict, people in my camp would be incredibly supportive – and so will most evangelicals” she says.

Some experts think the real question is not whether evangelicals will support the plan, but if Trump would even publish it unless he knew for sure that they would give it their backing.

“American administrations always give some consideration to domestic politics when they are dealing with Israel,” says Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked on Middle East policy under Republican and Democratic presidents. “But this administration has taken that to a whole new level. You really can’t compare their obsession with domestic politics on Israel to anything we’ve seen from any administration in the past.”

Miller believes domestic politics – especially with regards to evangelical support – was the key consideration behind Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. “Henry Kissinger famously said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics. That also seems to be true for the Trump administration when it comes to Israel,” he says.

Miller describes Trump’s dilemma in the following terms: Any peace plan that will include Israeli concessions could disappoint many of his evangelical supporters. Yet only a plan that will include significant Israeli concessions will have any chance of succeeding.

“American administrations will only take the risk of alienating supporters of Israel if they believe that risk will lead to a major diplomatic success,” Miller says, citing as examples the Ford administration’s “reassessment,” which led to Israeli flexibility in peace talks with Egypt, and the Carter administration’s hand-wringing with Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the lead-up to the Camp David Accords.

“If this administration thinks it truly has a chance for resuming serious negotiations and getting a deal, then I’d say this is worth the risk for them,” Miller says. “But even then, would Jared Kushner really be willing to put forward a plan that creates a tough choice for Bibi? I don’t know the answer – but that’s the only question that matters.”

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