Are the two most powerful Republicans in Washington playing a version of the old good-cop, bad-cop game with Israel and its friends in this country?
President Bush and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) appear to be on different sides of the Middle East policy game. Both profess to be great friends of Israel, interested in the security and survival of the Jewish state, but that's about all they agree on.
The differences were on display in recent days as Bush hosted the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers at the White House in back-to-back summits, while DeLay was traveling in the Mideast, declaring himself "an Israeli at heart."
While fulsome in his praise for Bush as a great friend of Israel, DeLay was essentially lobbying against Bush's Mideast policy while overseas, a long-standing political taboo here.
Bush is the first Republican president to endorse Palestinian statehood, and he frequently repeats his commitment to making that happen by 2005. DeLay said the Palestinian state would be "a sovereign state of terrorists," and "I can't imagine this president supporting a state of terrorists."
Bush has embraced the international "road map" for peace, called for dismantling Jewish settlements and wants Israel to stop work on the security fence it is building in the West Bank. DeLay has called the road map a blueprint for Israel's "destruction." He warned that a "consortium" of "inadvertent servants of tyranny ... neoappeasers ... [and] fancy thinkers is attempting to coerce the president into accepting what they innocuously call a 'road map.'"
Bush wants Israel to withdraw for the most part to its 1967 borders and remove the settlements, but this year, DeLay told the pro-Israel lobby, "I've toured Judea and Samaria and stood on the Golan Heights. I didn't see occupied territory. I saw Israel."
Are these two devout Christian evangelicals from Texas singing from different hymnals?
DeLay, a Baptist from Sugar Land, is a leader of the Christian Zionist movement, which has become the most hawkish element of the pro-Israel coalition, often going far beyond right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. DeLay's speech to the Knesset last week in Jerusalem led one Israeli lawmaker to comment, "Until I heard him speak, I thought I was to the farthest right in the Knesset."
A delegation of 29 House Democrats is in Israel this week to show their support for Israel as well. Their views are closer to Bush's than are those of the House GOP leader. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), like Bush and unlike DeLay, supports the road map, territorial compromise and is optimistic about the chances for peace.
This dichotomy raises some interesting questions:
Is DeLay undermining Sharon's -- and Bush's -- policy of negotiations by encouraging the Israeli far right to resist all compromise, because it has a powerful friend on Capitol Hill? Is he leading on the far right, convincing them that he wouldn't be saying those things if he didn't have the backing of his president?
DeLay insists that his positions are not political but a natural extension of "my faith." Many evangelicals believe that the Jews must return to all of Israel and that the Jewish State must be engulfed in unending conflict until the "second coming," when all the Jews will either perish or convert to Christianity.
How will DeLay and his evangelical brethren react when -- not if -- an Israeli government agrees to withdraw from most of the territories in return for peace, fulfilling their prophecy of a satanic "false peace?"
What happens if there is a clash between Sharon and Bush over territorial compromise and removing settlements? Does anyone believe DeLay would not stand with his fellow Texan, his party leader and his president?
Would DeLay be as enthusiastic about supporting Israel with a left-leaning government led by someone like Ehud Barak or Shimon Peres, who were willing to trade territory for peace?
DeLay, whose views can make Sharon look like a naïve dove, insists his positions have nothing to do with politics. That may be hard to swallow, but it is realistic.
While some of the big pro-Israel groups are enthusiastically backing the right-wing government, polls show that most Jews are much more inclined to the dovish position. For them, DeLay's fire-breathing speeches hold little appeal.
In addition, there's the matter of Bush's and DeLay's domestic record, which is in conflict with the views of most Jewish voters on a broad range of topics like civil liberties, gender, education, environment, abortion and, most of all, church-state relations.
Most Israelis on the right love the raw meat rhetoric of the Texan known as the "Hammer"; they love that he shares their views on Yasser Arafat, Palestinian statehood, terrorism, compromise and strong beliefs.
They laugh off the evangelicals' scriptural beliefs in Armageddon and can't understand why U.S. Jews do not. The American cousins see the evangelicals as stalwarts in a campaign to breech the wall of separation between church and state.
So the DeLay strategy may generate headlines here and in Israel and win enthusiastic support from the Jewish right, but it may backfire on GOP efforts to win over the Jewish mainstream.