Analyses of the US-Israel relationship usually focus on the question of influence. Is the pro-Israel lobby more powerful, or are Washington’s strategic thinkers in charge? In fact, neither question is particularly useful. Rather, Israeli and US interests intersect in the political and strategic arenas of US decision making.

The past decade has witnessed the consolidation of a strategically unchallenged, post-Soviet US hegemony in the Middle East. During this period of global transition, continuity and change have characterized the political and military arenas of US-Israeli relations, particularly during the first two years of Binyamin Netanyahu’s premiership.

US-Israeli relations have been complex from the beginning, involving a variety of domestic and international concerns and priorities. Domestic and international concerns and priorities. Domestic concerns, especially Jewish community interest in assisting Holocaust survivors unwelcome in the US and Europe, initially influenced bilateral relations. Following Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, however, the key element in the relationship was the expectation that Israel would serve important US interests in and around the region. Yet the breadth and bipartisan nature of political support for Israel has always stemmed from the fact that the goals of the lobbying networks supported, rather than challenged, US national interests as defined by the Pentagon and the State Department. Israel played a key role as a strategic surrogate and junior partner in fighting the Cold War in the region and, for many years, far afield in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the US military victory in the Gulf War rearranged the political map of the Middle East. Key US regional interests (protecting access to oil and maintaining strategic reach) remained, while guaranteeing the stability of market-friendly Middle Eastern regimes assumed new primacy. Although the goals were clear, the means of protecting US strategic interests during the transition period were less certain. Israel’s strategic role began to come under new scrutiny. With the end of Cold War-driven proxy conflicts in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, the emphasis once given to military force shifted in favor of economic and market realignments.

During Operation Desert Storm, US press-ganging of the Arab coalition against Iraq, a key component of Washington’s post-Cold War “new Middle East,” required Israel to stay out of the fighting. Protection of Israel became key, so the Bush Administration quickly delivered patriot anti-missile systems and other expensive military hardware to Tel Aviv. Although the Pentagon and the State Department are undoubtedly reassessing the strategic requirements for the defense of US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely that any significant shifts in US-Israeli relations will transpire. Political realities, long congruent with strategic interests, tend to take on a life of their own.

Chief among these realities is US politicians’ unshakable reliance on Israel’s supporters for campaign financing and votes. The growing unease and division among American Jews towards Israel, however, has begun to shift support for Israel out of the mostly Democratic and often liberal Jewish community and into the mostly Republican and theologically Christian Zionist right.

“The Unholy Alliance”: Fundamentalist Christians and Right-Wing Israelis

Just hours before he was scheduled to meet President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office in January, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shook hands with one of Clinton’s most vociferous fundamentalist Christian critics: Rev. Jerry Falwell. Netanyahu was rallying all the support he could muster within Washington to dissuade the Clinton administration from using “pressure” (defined as any public statement of US goals for Middle East peace) to force Netanyahu back to the stalled peace talks. After his meeting with the Israeli leader, Falwell noted that “there are about 200,000 evangelical pastors in America, and we are asking them all, through e-mail, faxes, letters and the telephone, to go into their pulpits and use their influence in support of the State of Israel and the prime minister.” [1]

This meeting was only the most recent episode in a two-decades-old alliance between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and American right-wing fundamentalist Christians. A new aspect of this alliance is the emergence of the highly organized Christian Zionist movement as a formidable component of the previously liberal and Jewish-dominated Israel support movement. It was Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin who first recognized the potential weight of fundamentalist Christians in the US political arena. Begin decorated Falwell with the Jabotinsky medal in the early 1980s, a few years after Falwell had imposed himself on the political scene by establishing his Moral Majority organization. [2]

Begin, whose ascension to power in 1977 ended a long Labor-dominated period in Israel, sought natural allies in right-wing American circles. During his first year in office, he instructed an aide to meet with American fundamentalist Christians in order to “explore the depth of their pro-Israel sentiment.” The outcome was astounding. In 1977, full-page advertisements began to appear in major US papers, all declaring Christian organizations’ support for Israel and its major policies, such as the immigration of Soviet Jews. In 1981, after Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Begin asked Falwell to do some publicity work for Israel, which was softly criticized by the US administration. Falwell, in his many TV appearances, “spoke in favor of the raid on Baghdad.” [3] Begin repaid him with the medal.

The alliance between the Israeli right and Christian fundamentalists has been shaped by ideological, international and US domestic considerations. Ideologically, fundamentalist Protestants have always entertained biblical aspirations for the second coming of Christ, an event presaged by the “return” of the Jews to the Holy Land and the existence of a Jewish entity ready to greet the Messiah.

Domestically, it is clear that the influence of organized right-wing Christian groups is skyrocketing within US political circles. Sara Diamond, author of Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, tracked the early signs: “Prior to 1980,” she writes,

Republican Party strategists estimated that only 55 percent of all fundamentalist Christians were registered to vote, compared with 72 percent of the general population. That changed in 1980 when the combined efforts of Christian Voice, Moral Majority and the New Right political action committees yielded at least 2 million new fundamentalist voters, a significant ’moral minority’ given that Ronald Reagan was elected by only 26 percent of the electorate. Pollster Louis Harris estimated that white fundamentalist voters accounted for two thirds of Reagan’s ten-point margin over Jimmy Carter.

More recently, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen describes how “the Republican Party has gone conveniently pious. It is in the thrall of politically potent religious conservatives such as Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of the ’Focus on the Family’ radio show.” [4] The 1994 Republican sweep in the House of Representatives brought to power a number of right-wing Christians and helped to turn Congress into the single most significant backer of Israel’s “most favored friend” position in US foreign policy.

Christ Will Return

Christian fundamentalists’ ideological involvement in “the Holy Land” dates back to the nineteenth century when American Protestants witnessed a revivalist movement. For the last 100 years, American evangelicals have had their eyes set on Palestine not only as missionaries and pilgrims, but also as supporters of Zionist policies. Throughout this century they have been awaiting and anticipating the second coming of Christ. Many US fundamentalists still adhere to this millenarianist theology, which holds that the return of the Jews to Palestine is a necessary precondition for the appearance of the Messiah. Jews and Israel are thus merely stepping stones to the realization of this eschatological vision of the Middle East.

Lobbying Congress from a biblical stance dates back to the late nineteenth century. In 1891, William Blackstone, a Chicago Methodist and a prominent figure in the early pro-Zionist Christian movement, was able to gather the signatures of 43 leading congressmen, governors, mayors and industrialists on a petition submitted to then-President Benjamin Harrison. The petition requested Harrison to lead an international effort in support of a Jewish state in Palestine.

It is difficult to assess accurately the influence of Falwell’s and the dozen other major right-wing Christian organizations in the US, which now uncritically and vociferously support all policies of the Likud government. Some estimates place the number of followers and part- or full-time activists and members of these organization as high as 61 million Americans in the 1980s. [5] Uncritical Christian support of Israel comes at virtually no political cost to fundamentalist leaders. “Whatever Israel does, the Christian believers will see the hand of God in it — whether it is simply a new office building, a highway or the bombing of an Arab nuclear facility.” [6]

The Formation of the “Unholy Alliance”

In the mid-1980s, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s major lobbying group on Capitol Hill, started realigning itself with the rising right-wing in the US. AIPAC correctly surmised that the American far right’s commitment to Israel differed considerably from the support conventionally lent to the Zionist state by various US administrations, support historically rooted in America’s global anti-Soviet strategy. Furthermore, the far right has never paid attention to Israel’s dismal human rights record. An AIPAC insider even conceded that ”we are becoming more ‘neo-conservative.’ We want to broaden Israel’s support to the right with the people who do not care about what is happening on the West Bank but care a lot about the Soviet Union.” [7] A majority of these people were right-wing Protestant fundamentalists who viewed support of Israel as key to the political and spiritual survival of the US.

Fundamentalist Christians were ready to lend support to Israel even after the breakup of the “evil empire” because their position was rooted in theological rather than strategic considerations. According to Robert Kuttner of The New Republic magazine, the benefit was mutual. AIPAC and its controversial links to scores of local pro-Israel PACs started “delivering Jewish financial backing to candidates far to the right of positions that most Jews hold on most issues. Incumbent conservative Republicans have discovered a cynical formula. They have only to demonstrate sufficient loyalty to Israel and they can all but lock out their democratic challengers from a substantial fraction of Jewish support.” [8] Seeing that Christian right-wing groups have successfully targeted one pro-Israel liberal candidate after another for defeat “because of their positive votes on abortion, civil rights and social spending…the pro-Israel money has moved well to the right of most Jewish voters.” [9]

Evangelicals Are Welcome, But Not to Evangelize

The fulfillment of biblical prophesies concerning the second coming of Christ motivates the religiously rooted support American fundamentalists give to Israel. After the return of the Jews to Palestine, other developments are expected to hasten the realization of this biblical promise. Chief among these will be the conversion of the Jews. This aspect of the Christian Zionist agenda is played down by both the evangelicals and their allies in the Likud. “Begin wanted evangelicals to visit but not to evangelize,” [10] and so far both seem to have kept their side of the bargain.

Many liberal American Jews have been disturbed by this alliance between American and Israeli rightists. Liberal Jews, who favor abortion rights, oppose prayer in public schools and defend the separation of church and state, were alarmed by the reinstatement of a right-wing government in Israel and shaken by the thought of Tel Aviv’s Washington lobbyists, AIPAC, holding hands with conservative fundamentalist Christians. According to Robert Zimmerman, president of the American Jewish Congress, the fundamentalist agenda threatens “the freedoms that make Jews safe in America.” [11] The AJC’s view is not supported, however, by other major Jewish American organizations. The rift extends even to other organizations. Nathan Perlmutter, Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, dismissed liberal Jews’ concerns about fundamentalist support for Israel by saying ,“Praise God and pass the ammunition.” [12] But Abraham Foxman, ADL executive director and one of the most influential voices in American Jewry, expressed his dismay over Netanyahu’s meeting with Falwell, which he characterized as “crude and insensitive behavior.” [13]

When Begin faced criticisms from liberal American Jews for meeting Falwell in the 1980s and actively seeking the support of fundamentalist Christians, he reportedly said: “I tell you, if the Christian fundamentalists support us in Congress today, I will support them when the messiah comes tomorrow.” [14] The dangerous cynicism underlying this unholy alliance between Israeli’s right wing, US lobbyists and right-wing Christian fundamentalists is best captured by Lenny Davis, former chief of research for AIPAC and currently second-in-command at the Israeli embassy in Washington (and known as Lenny Ben David), who said, “until I see Jesus coming over the hill, I am in favor of all the friends Israel can get. Let the defense organizations [AJC and ADL] worry about the domestic issues [school prayer, abortion and anti-Semitism] among this group.” [15]

In the meantime, the White House and State Department shadowbox with Netanyahu in a vain attempt to reanimate the comatose peace process and avoid Congressional censure. The entire basis of the US-Israel relationship has shifted since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent diminished need for a strategic junior partner to execute unsavory tasks in the Third World. Internationally, the strategic significance of strong US-Israeli relations has come into question, as has Israel’s importance as a bridgehead in the oil-rich Middle East following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So far, however, Washington has not acknowledged this shift with any diminution of the Washington-Tel Aviv alliance. Politicians’ reliance on money from Israel’s supporters remains an unspoken constant. Challenging the power and influence of the Christian right, especially in Congress, is a dubious possibility. Eventually, on the day when even Washington is forced to admit that Oslo is dead, the nexus between domestic political concerns and global imperatives will determine what can change, and what must stay the same, in the US-Israeli alliance.


[1] New York Times, January 21, 1998.
[2] Edward Tivnan, The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 181.
[3] Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Friends in Deed: Inside the US-Israel Alliance (New York: Hyperion, 1994), p. 354.
[4] Washington Post, July 2, 1998.
[5] Tivnan, p. 182.
[6] Melman and Raviv, p. 356.
[7] Tivnan, p. 181.
[8] Quoted in Richard Curtiss, Stealth PACs: Lobbying Congress for Control of US Middle East Policy (Washington, DC: American Educational Trust, 1996), pp. 181-182.
[9] Ibid., p. 82.
[10] Melman and Raviv, p. 361.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Tivnan, p. 182.
[13] Curtiss, p. 82.
[14] Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989), p. 486.
[15] Tivnan, p. 182.

How to cite this article:

Phyllis Bennis "“Praise God and Pass the Ammunition!”," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

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