Analysis |

Pompeo’s Controversial Jerusalem Endorsement of Trump Hits Home With Israelis No Less Than Evangelicals

After more than a decade with Netanyahu, public opinion identifies with Christian Zionists more than American Jews and shares evangelical fears of a Democratic victory in November

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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In this image from video, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks from Jerusalem during the second night of the Republican National Convention, August 25, 2020.
In this image from video, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks from Jerusalem during the second night of the Republican National Convention, August 25, 2020.Credit: ,AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s controversial contribution to the Republican National Convention this week from the rooftop of Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel may have raised a ruckus in the U.S. but went largely unnoticed in Israel. Israelis are too preoccupied with their own coronavirus crisis, economic meltdown and ongoing political unrest, but it’s hard to imagine they would find anything objectionable in Pompeo’s performance anyway.

After all, Israelis largely concur with Pompeo’s idyllic description of Trump’s foreign policy, at least as far as their own country is concerned. Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to “this very city of God, Jerusalem, the rightful capital of the Jewish homeland”, as Pompeo phrased it, earned Trump the same kind of demi-god accolades that the GOP’s convention speakers are showering him with. Unlike his critics in the Democratic Party and a large chunk of what used to be the Republicans’ national security elite, Israeli public opinion was elated when Trump dumped the Iran nuclear deal and continue to believe in the wisdom of the move to this day.

Israelis are unlikely to be troubled by the outcry against Pompeo’s break with long-held tradition that Secretaries of State don’t address political conventions or his purported violation of the 1939 Hatch Act, which forbids Federal officers from participating publicly in political rallies and from misusing federal funds to finance political activities. Israel’s 1959 Election Law (Modes of Propaganda) contains even harsher prohibitions than the Hatch Act but it has long been ignored and, in recent years, openly flouted.

Inundated as they are with daily media reports about the crimes Netanyahu has been charged with and allegations of his additional and even graver offences, Israelis have grown blasé about violations of the law that seem relatively minor in comparison. After Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated use of the Prime Minister’s Office as a venue for Likud rallies throughout the three recent election campaigns, the few Israelis following the Republican convention probably concur with Trump’s Chief of Staff Mike Meadows, who said that the Pompeo brouhaha along with Trump’s flagrant exploitation of the White House and the power of the Presidency for similar political purposes, “don’t interest anyone outside the Beltway”.

Israelis certainly wouldn’t find fault with Pompeo’s efforts to shore up Trump’s support among evangelical Christians, who are widely seen as replacing AIPAC and the Jewish establishment as Israel’s new mainstay of support in Washington DC. Netanyahu, in point of fact, is probably more popular among U.S. evangelicals than he is in Israeli public opinion. Evangelicals are no less Netanyahu’s base, albeit on foreign land, than they are Trump’s or his own Likud.

Pompeo’s shot in the arm comes against the backdrop of the sex scandal that has ousted Jerry Falwell Jr. from Liberty University and rocked the evangelical world in the process. Most Israelis are unaware of Falwell Jr.’s prominence in the evangelical community, his critical role as an advocate for Israel’s rejectionist right-wing policies or his apparent fascination with pool boys. If they recognize the name Falwell at all, it is by virtue of his father, Jerry Falwell Sr., who founded The Moral Majority and laid the groundwork, along with Netanyahu, for Israel’s unprecedented political alliance with evangelicals.

President Donald Trump stands with Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. in Lynchburg, Va., August 25, 2020.Credit: Steve Helber,AP

The late pastor and the current prime minister could hardly have imagined that their now notorious 1998 rally at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, in which Falwell pledged to support Netanyahu’s resistance to then President Clinton’s demands for territorial concessions, would not only persevere for close to a quarter century but evolve into the main axis of U.S.-Israeli relations. Falwell Sr.’s Israel-centric approach is now ingrained so deeply into the worldviews of most evangelicals that his son’s fall from grace is unlikely to have more than marginal influence on evangelical support for Israel, if at all.

Unlike the majority of U.S. Jews – who fear evangelicals, abhor their demand for fusion between church and state and suspect them of harboring latent and mostly implicit antisemitic views – Israelis, especially those that support Netanyahu, welcome evangelical support with open arms. They view so-called Christian Zionists through the same instrumental prism with which they judge Trump: Their unabashed and unqualified support for Israel trumps any and all objections and reservations about the nature of their religious creed, up to and including evangelical prayers for End Times, Armageddon and the coming of the Second Messiah, slated to open Jewish eyes and spur them to convert.

Israelis, in any case, are all too familiar with the unique evangelical integration of religion and politics. Long before evangelicals decided to embrace Trump as an instrument of God despite his manifest moral failings, Israeli religious parties had already perfected the art of supporting any Israeli leader who fulfilled their religious demands and agreed to preserve their monopoly over cardinal issues such as marriage, divorce and kashrut, Like evangelicals, Israeli leaders have learned to turn a blind eye to their secular allies’ moral deficiencies.

And as is the case with evangelicals, Israel’s growing political polarization and escalating culture wars have gravitated hitherto unaffiliated religious parties from the center of the political map and entrenched them the deeply nationalist right-wing. Instead of playing both sides of the political arena in order to maximize their gains, Israel’s national religious and ultra-Orthodox parties have evolved into the most dedicated and enthusiastic component of the right-wing base, one which Netanyahu or any other Likud leader wouldn’t dream of offending or alienating.

Israeli Likud party supporters wave a Trump 2020 electoral banner as they react to exit polls at the Likud's campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on September 18, 2019Credit: AFP

Most Israelis, in fact, support Trump’s reelection and are fearful of a Joe Biden presidency for reasons that are strikingly similar to the evangelicals’ ironclad support for the current president. Israelis also fear that Biden and the Democrats would try to reverse some of Trump’s moves, including rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, bringing what most Israelis perceive as the current President’s sweet honeymoon with both Netanyahu and Israel to an abrupt end.

The depth of Israeli hopes for a Trump victory and a Biden defeat – 56%-18% according to one recent poll – doesn’t derive, however, from the President’s unabashedly pro-Israeli policies alone. Netanyahu’s electoral base views Trump as Netanyahu’s best friend and powerful ally and thus deserving of the same kind of personal loyalty and fanatic support they extend to the Prime Minister himself.

After more than a decade of Netanyahu’s nationalism, xenophobia, criminal embroilment, war on the rule of law and incessant incitement against minorities and political rivals, Israelis are less likely than other democratic nations to agonize over Trump’s similar behavior patterns. The large chunk of Israeli public opinion that has been won over by Netanyahu’s claim that he is being hounded by a leftist cabal and its agents in the media and judicial system tends to embrace Trump’s parallel claim of victimhood, if not martyrdom, for the cause.

Israel’s body politic may seem to be divided along similar lines as U.S. politics, but the parallel, in this case, is far from perfect. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc may be just as conservative, isolationist, aggrieved and religiously inclined as Trump’s natural coalition, but the Israeli left is nothing like the liberal-minded, minority-focused progressive coalition that comprises the Democratic base. The common denominator that glues the center-left together is confined to its staunch opposition to Netanyahu’s continued rule and to his efforts to undermine a two-State solution. In most other matters that preoccupy Democrats, including minority rights and social-democratic reforms, the Israeli center-left coalition is divided, clearing the way for its far more cohesive right-wing rivals to stamp Israel with its values.

Thus, many Israelis, inside and outside the right-wing bloc, identify with Trump’s entire worldview rather than with his pro-Israeli moves alone. Many have embraced Trump’s claim and the evangelical conviction that Biden is simply a figurehead who serves as camouflage for the ascendant radical and largely anti-Israeli wing of the Democratic Party, which sees victory in November as a gateway to cultural and moral revolution.

Joe Biden stands next to Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at a memorial ceremony for former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon at the Knesset in Jerusalem, 2014. Credit: AFP

Netanyahu’s thinly veiled efforts to depict Democrats as dangerous for Israel in the aftermath of his clash with Barack Obama over the Iran nuclear deal have permeated to the public, alienating Israelis from the Republicans’ rivals and diminishing their traditional support for bipartisanship in Israel-U.S. relations. Trump promises more of the same convenient alliance with Israel while a Biden presidency seems like a leap into a dark, dangerous and unfamiliar unknown.

Pompeo’s message from Jerusalem may have drawn criticism and condemnation from outraged Democrats and incensed national-security establishment figures, but it warmed the hearts of appreciative evangelicals and was met with the approval of those Israelis who took an interest. Pompeo’s seeming violation of hitherto accepted bounds of propriety as well as the explicit letter of the Hatch Act may have shocked Americans but is seen in Netanyahu’s Israel as par for the course.

Similarly, Israelis are unlikely to be moved by the claim that Pompeo used Jerusalem and Israel as a political prop, given that Israeli politicians routinely do the same. They are just as unlikely to be swayed by the complaint that the Secretary of State was exploiting Israel not to entice American Jews to support Trump but to cement his standing among their greatest political and ideological adversaries, the evangelicals.

As far as Trump is concerned, Israelis have chosen sides: Like evangelicals they stand solidly behind Trump and in total opposition to the vast majority of their fellow Jews. Pompeo may have been targeting evangelicals but his message hit home with Israeli Jews as well.

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