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Gaza Plan Foes Face Evangelical Aid Loss

by James D. Besser

April 8, 2004 | 8:00 pm

With the Gaza disengagement plan picking up momentum and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon getting set to pitch the proposal to the Bush administration at Camp David next week, right-wing Jewish groups are counterattacking, hoping to forestall U.S. support for the plan. Their partners in this fight: Christian Zionists.

It's easy to see why the Jewish hawks have turned to the evangelicals, but in the end, they're almost certain to be disappointed. While major figures in the evangelical movement do, indeed, share the anger Israel's settlers feel at this "betrayal" of their cause, they are unlikely to come through in the clinch.

And the reasons offer a cautionary tale about the depth of a new alliance that may be more talk than action.

The Bush administration is moving cautiously toward conditional support of the Gaza plan, which officials here hope will reduce tensions in the region and ultimately lead to a resumption of some kind of peace process, and it's unlikely the Christian Zionists can stop them or even that they will expend much energy trying.

True, many of these groups seem to be in lockstep with right-wing members of Sharon's Cabinet who are already waging open warfare against his dramatic plan and threatening to bring down his government.

To many of the evangelicals, Gaza and the West Bank are part of the biblical bequest to Israel, although their views of scriptural promises have some big differences from the Jewish view -- starting with the whole Second Coming thing.

Some evangelicals have already been on Capitol Hill, working with House conservatives to generate pressure against any White House endorsement of the plan. But opponents will be making a big mistake if they expect more than a few gestures.

The 2004 presidential election is turning into a watershed for the religious right, and it has almost nothing to do with Israel. Despite periodic complaints from that sector, President Bush has done more to advance the conservative Christian agenda than any of his predecessors.

He has made sweeping changes in federal rules limiting government grants to overtly religious groups, and born-again Christian social service providers have been by far the biggest beneficiaries. He has presided over passage of the first federal school vouchers program; he has appointed dozens of strongly anti-abortion judges to the federal bench and signed critical anti-abortion legislation.

And he has brought a faith-based style to politics that has warmed the hearts of evangelicals.

Domestically, these groups have made unprecedented gains since 2001, and they are poised to make even greater ones if Bush is reelected and Congress turns even more Republican. That scenario, which liberals regard as their own personal version of the apocalypse, could include a radical transformation of the Supreme Court, an overturning of Roe vs. Wade and support for the anti-gay rights agenda.

The Christians may be upset about the Gaza plan, but they are unlikely to jeopardize any of their recent domestic gains and the ones to come by taking on an administration that is sympathetic to most of their priorities. And despite threats to the contrary, few evangelical voters are likely to sit out the 2004 election if Bush endorses the Gaza plan and helps Sharon implement it.

Some of Israel's top nationalists, including Tourism Minister Benny Elon, have developed strong working relations with many evangelical leaders. But that new connection does not outweigh this community's core political issues.

That explains why some key evangelical leaders, while expressing concern about the Gaza plan, have refrained from directly fighting it.

The same dynamic holds with the congressional conservatives who have aligned themselves with the Israeli far right. Leaders like Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader and the top religious right supporter on Capitol Hill, have been quick to express solidarity with Israeli hardliners and their friends here, but they have been loathe to take on the administration.

These lawmakers breathe fire when they appear before hawkish Jewish groups, but they haven't shown the slightest inclination to aggressively challenge their friend in the White House -- their partner in forging a domestic political revolution.

For both conservative lawmakers and the Christian Zionists, growing support for Israel may be a blend of political opportunism, genuine support for Israel and maybe a touch of biblical prophecy. But it won't trump their domestic concerns, and the administration knows it, which is why, for all their complaints, the Christian Zionists haven't really affected the administration's Mideast policy.

Two years ago, Bush became the first president to openly support Palestinian statehood, despite objections from this quarter; he continued to promote his Mideast "road map" to peace, even though they hated it. The Christian Zionists have become the biggest U.S. cheerleaders for the Israeli settlers movement, but that hasn't stopped the Bush administration from terming settlements "unhelpful" or demanding their removal.

And if Sharon can convince Bush that his Gaza disengagement plan won't forestall further movement toward a Palestinian state and a negotiated settlement, the U.S. administration is likely to sign on the dotted line -- despite protests from the Christian right, which are likely to be more rhetorical than real.  

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