WASHINGTON – The former Israeli ambassador to Washington recently caused a stir when he suggested that Israeli leaders should focus more on the courtesy of American evangelicals than American Jews, who he said are “disproportionately among our detractors ”.
But Ron Dermer’s remarks – in which he called evangelical Christians the “backbone of Israel’s support” in the United States – have taken on new resonance in recent days as a diverse coalition of Israeli political parties seeks to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.
No one has worked harder to cultivate ties between Israel and the American evangelical community than Netanyahu, experts say, and many American Christian leaders are closely watching the political upheavals in Israel that will determine Netanyahu’s fate, likely on Sunday when the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, will be due to vote on the coalition government.
The deep ties between Netanyahu and American evangelicals erupted over the weekend, after a controversial American pastor, Mike Evans, launched an unvarnished and very personal attack on Naftali Bennett, the right-wing politician on the verge of succeed Netanyahu as prime minister in a deal he struck with centrist leader Yair Lapid and six other parties in Israel’s Knesset. The coalition includes die-hard conservatives, center-left factions and a small Arab party – a possible first in Israeli politics.
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“You want to be in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood and the leftists. God have mercy on your soul,” Evans wrote in a public letter to Bennett. “You are a pathetic and bitter little man, so obsessed with destroying Netanyahu that you are ready to harm the State of Israel for your worthless cause.”
Evans held a press conference in Jerusalem on Monday in which he apologized for his “foul” language attacking Bennett, but then repeated much of his remarks against the fragile coalition opposing Netanyahu. If approved, he said, the coalition would “drop a white flag (of surrender) to radical Islam.”
Other American evangelical leaders were quick to disavow Evans’ words, particularly challenging his prediction that American evangelicals would abandon Israel if Netanyahu was ousted.
“His statement was absurd, unnecessary and absolutely does not reflect the point of view of an evangelical leader I know,” said Reverend Johnnie Moore, who served as an informal spokesperson for the group of evangelicals that advised former President Donald Trump.
Moore said American evangelicals should not meddle in Israeli politics. And while Netanyahu is a revered figure among American Christians, he said: “I am without a doubt quite sure that the evangelical friendship with Israel is stronger than any government, any political party, any prime minister.”
Marc Zell, an Israel-based Republican American activist, said he did not believe the coalition government, if approved, would cause Israel’s ties to sever with American evangelicals.
“Most evangelicals support Israel because of shared values and Israel’s eschatological role from a Christian point of view,” Zell said, referring to evangelicals beliefs about the “end of time”.
Yet the firestorm over Evans’ remarks highlighted the alliance between Netanyahu and conservative evangelicals in the United States.
“He has become a household name among Republicans. They love him, especially evangelicals,” said Shibley Telhami, an expert on US Middle East policy and professor at the University of Maryland who has led many polls in the United States, Israel and the Arab world.
Telhami conducted a poll ahead of the 2016 presidential election that asked respondents which government leader they admired the most in the world.
“Benjamin Netanyahu was number one, ahead of Ronald Reagan, among evangelicals,” he said.
Moore said there’s a good reason for this depth of support.
“Unlike any Israeli figure since the founding of the modern State of Israel, (Netanyahu) has had direct dealings with evangelical leaders – and dozens of them – for a very, very long period of time,” did he declare. Netanyahu “was prepared to cross a bridge (between Jews and Christians) during its construction.”
Netanyahu now appears to be activating America’s conservative Christian leaders – or at least Evans – to help him stay in power, Telhami said. Evans said he met with several members of the Israeli parliament on Monday in an effort to persuade them to abandon the anti-Netanyahu coalition.
Zell said the biggest worry is a change in the attitude of young American evangelicals towards Israel.
“There is a growing generational gap among evangelicals that is not working to Israel’s advantage,” he said. “From this perspective, it is possible that the policies of the new government – as far as we can know what they will be – may in fact appeal to ‘awakened’ evangelicals.”
A poll conducted this spring by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the Barna Group showed that support for Israel among young evangelicals rose from 75% to 34% between 2018 and 2021. Telhami said that his polls had yielded similar results.
“This raises questions about the sustainability of the strong evangelical support for Israel that the Israeli right has cultivated for years and which has proven to be reliable under the Trump administration,” he wrote in a recent analysis for the Brookings Institution. .
In an interview, Telhami said that young evangelicals seem to see Israel more “through the prism of social justice … than through Bible prophecy or the strategic calculation that some of their leaders are doing.”
This may explain, he said, Dermer’s suggestion that Israel step up its efforts to woo American evangelicals against American Jews, who generally lean towards the Democratic Party.
But Zell, who is the president of Republican Overseas in Israel, said it was not an effective strategy regardless of who becomes Israeli prime minister on Sunday.
“We cannot ignore the attitude of American Jews, for no other reason that detractors of Israel will inevitably use the lack of support for Israel among American Jews as a weapon in their campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state,” he said. he declared in an e-mail.
“American Jews need to move beyond their reflective embrace of Democratic / progressive talking points when it comes to Israel,” he said. “Likewise, Israel needs to do a much better job of communicating with the American Jewish community and especially young Jewish populations. “
Contribution: Jotam Confino