Evangelical dogma drives Trump’s Middle East policy

About 59% of US respondents said they sympathise with Israel but support from those who identified as Republicans fell from 87% in 2018 to 76% in 2019.
Sunday 14/04/2019
US President Donald Trump speaks alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L)  prior to signing a Proclamation on the Golan Heights at the White House in Washington, March 25. (AFP)
Partisan politics. US President Donald Trump speaks alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) prior to signing a Proclamation on the Golan Heights at the White House in Washington, March 25. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo compared US President Donald Trump to Queen Esther while announcing America’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, he hinted at what drives his policy decisions in the Middle East: the Bible.

As experts debate the possibility that US policy decisions are tied up in end-of-times ideology, they’ve questioned why Israelis would align themselves with a group that claimed they are of the wrong faith, how embracing a one-state solution might go against the United States’ stated goals of fighting extremist ideology and why the evangelical base has such a strong hold over Trump, even if that might be to the detriment of Christians living in Israel.

The answers, they said, are simple: The Israelis don’t put much store in the evangelical storyline while being willing to take allies where they can get them and by keeping the evangelical base happy, Trump maintains the support he needs as he works towards a second term as president.

“I don’t know that we have ever seen foreign policy so personalised and made so much a matter of religious indoctrination as we have seen with this administration,” said Andrea Hatcher, politics professor and department chairwoman at Sewanee University, an Episcopalian institution in Tennessee. “Especially in the past two weeks.”

Since Trump became president, he has moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed the Palestinian office in Washington because of alleged Palestinian support of terrorism, recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and appeared with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just as Netanyahu faces a close election.

These moves appear to have helped. Just after Netanyahu was re-elected, Trump sent out two tweets:

“Spoke to Bibi @Netanyahu to congratulate him on a great and hard-fought win. The United States is with him and the People of Israel all the way!” That tweet followed one he’d sent earlier in the day that featured “Make America Great Again” flags being flown in Israel to celebrate Netanyahu’s win: “Trump flags being waived at the Bibi @Netanyahu VICTORY celebration last night!”

The moves led many to conclude that Trump’s “Deal of the Century” will avoid a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu has spoken about annexing the West Bank and, the Associated Press reported, no one in Israel talked about a two-state solution ahead of the Israeli elections.

After results showed Netanyahu had taken the lead in the Israeli elections, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to answer a question from US Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, about whether the United States still supports a two-state solution. Earlier, Pompeo did not answer whether the United States would oppose Netanyahu’s plan to unilaterally annex the West Bank.

The Palestinians have rejected Trump’s plan without seeing it.

This comes as US support for Israel in the Israel-Palestinian conflict has fallen to its lowest point since 2009, though support remains high, a Gallup Poll indicated. About 59% of US respondents said they sympathise with Israel but support from those who identified as Republicans fell from 87% in 2018 to 76% in 2019, while support from self-described Democrats fell from 49% to 43%.

“I’ve been very surprised at the turn this has taken,” said Hatcher, who researches the political behaviour of evangelicals. “It seems like, very early, the Trump administration began operating in a personalised fashion.”

She pointed out that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, from a conservative Jewish family with connections to Israel, developed US-Israel policy and that Trump worked on a personal level with Netanyahu.

Samuel Goldman, a political science professor at George Washington University in Washington and who studies Christian Zionism in American political thought, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Trump has a history of support for Jewish and Israeli causes that is not untypical for New York figures,” Goldman said, adding that Trump’s daughter is Jewish by conversion. “Many of his voters do care passionately about his policy on Israel and, finally, he seems to admire Netanyahu personally as the sort of tough guy that [Trump] likes or imagines himself to be.”

Goldman said he suspects “Netanyahu and members of his government have been very good at appealing to Trump’s personal vanity.”

Personal involvement seems to go deeper with the Trump administration than previous administrations, both experts said.

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, tends to lay out US policy in religious terms. At the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, he made a direct connection, saying: “As secretary of state and a Christian, I’m proud to lead American diplomacy to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

In January, he told an audience in Egypt that the trip was “especially meaningful to him as an evangelical Christian,” adding that he keeps an open Bible in his office to remind himself of “God and his word.”

Pompeo doesn’t say “Iran,” instead using “Islamic Republic of Iran” at every reference, which is the official name of the country but also a reminder to listeners of its religious nature.

In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Pompeo was reminded that he meant “Islamist” after he said, “It’s the Islamic nature of the republic” when talking about why Hamas takes Israel Defence Forces soldiers hostages.

In an interview with CBN News, he suggested that Trump had been sent from God to save the Jews.

Because the United States is a secular country whose government is constitutionally barred from establishing any religion, Hatcher said the statements were “disturbing.”

“He blatantly linked his religion to his policy,” she said. “‘God has raised up President Trump for such a time as this.’ There’s a religious element that we’ve not seen from a secretary of state before this.”

As the United States fights terrorism, Pompeo’s statements, as well as any move from a two-state solution, could be used by Iran to feed anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment.

“When you’re dealing with religion as the source of a conflict, as you do in Israel, this adds fuel,” she said. “I think this is dangerous.”

Goldman said US President George W. Bush is also an evangelical Christian who was “often accused of reading his Middle East policy out of the pages of scripture.”

“I have not seen any evidence that this is actually the case,” Goldman said, “and that makes me sceptical of similar accusations of Pompeo.”

Recently, Pompeo gave an interview to only Christian media outlets and refused to release a transcript of the interview to secular outlets. While officials have given closed interviews before, the divide has never been based on religion.

“I think that’s consistent with the generally adversarial relationship this administration has with the media but I do think closed calls like that are probably bad practice, in general,” Goldman said.

Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seemed to be a payoff from the administration to a clear base of supporters: evangelical Christians, Hatcher said, who have made the request for years without making headway.

Why do American evangelical Christians care so much about Israel?

There’s a history of conservative Israelis working with Christian evangelicals going back to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin working with Jerry Falwell, an American televangelist.

“[Begin’s] attitude was Israel was a country with many enemies and not too many friends,” Goldman said.

Evangelicals differ from other Christians in that they consider the Bible a literal interpretation of history and God’s will, Goldman said. “In other words, biblical promises aren’t just moral suggestions,” he said.

And while the Rapture — the point when all dead and living Christians rise and unite with Christ while everyone else, including Jews who don’t convert, is left behind — is important to some evangelical Christians, Goldman said that’s not as important as the “beginning of times.”

“It’s the idea of covenant: God makes agreements with peoples and those covenants are binding,” he said. Abraham was promised a great nation somewhere near what is now Israel, he said, and those who bless Abraham, even if they aren’t Jewish, will be blessed.

Falwell himself said that Jews must return to Israel to bring about the second coming of Christ, as he told CNN in 2006.

Pompeo believes in the Rapture, as he told a crowd in 2015.

“Christians — almost at all costs — pray for the peace of Israel,” Hatcher said. “They see Israel as taking a central role in the end of times and the Rapture.”

By “end of times,” she refers to the second coming of Christ, which some evangelical Christians believe will happen only after all of Jews return to the “promised land” of Israel.

“If the Israelis don’t convert, they’ll go to hell,” she said, explaining the evangelical belief, “but the Israelis don’t believe that, so they see no risk.”

She cited as an example of this odd partnership John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel. Hagee faced controversy for a sermon that spoke of Hitler as a “hunter” sent by God to force European Jews to Palestine, has a history of anti-Islamic statements and recently wrote a book connecting Israel to the second coming of Christ.

He’s also a frequent attendant of AIPAC meetings and he gave the benediction at the opening of the new US Embassy in Jerusalem.

“The evangelicals think they’re getting something that will bring the end of days… and the Israelis are willing to go along with it because they get political access and money,” Hatcher said, “but we’ve also gotten to the point that any criticism of Israel is seen as anti-Semitic.”

That idea was heavily promoted at the 2019 AIPAC conference, when Republican speakers attacked Democrats and “the left” as being anti-Semitic.

And for Trump?

“Overall, his numbers are low,” Hatcher said, “but evangelicals are his base. If he doesn’t have them, he has no hope of being re-elected.”

Trump cannot count on American Jews, who tend to be progressive in their politics. In the 2016 election, 71% of Jews voted for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, while 24% voted for Trump, the Jewish Virtual Library stated.

Hatcher said she worries that the administration has, by joining with evangelical Christians, boxed itself in.

“In joining with the hardliners, this administration leaves no room for negotiation with other groups in the area,” Hatcher said. “By taking some of these extreme positions that no Democrat and no Republican would have done before, he has staked out a policy seen as completely supported by Israel and Israel alone.”

She said she was also concerned that, because the number of Christians in Israel has decreased and because many people in the Middle East don’t know that most Christians are not evangelicals, Christians in the area could be mistreated.

“It’s possible we’re setting up certain groups of Christians for persecution or criticism when they may actually be in support of the two-state solution,” Hatcher said.

She said she hopes people living in the region understand that evangelical Christians are a small percentage of Christians and that there’s a “diversity of opinion and views.”

In addition, “American Jews are known to be quite liberal in their political ideology and more supportive of the two-state solution,” she said.

As Pompeo’s and Netanyahu’s statements, as well as Trump’s agenda, have been splashed across news pages, dissent seems to be at a minimum in the United States.

“I would suspect that it’s simply a matter of the political agenda being so overwhelmed right now,” Hatcher said, citing the completion of the Mueller report on Russian meddling in US elections, a fistful of Democrats entering the US presidential race, Trump threatening to close the border with Mexico and a Trump-proposed end to the new US health-care system.

But there’s another reason.

“I think the Democratic Party doesn’t see foreign policy as a winning issue at this time and it could anger some Jewish Democrats if they appear too critical,” Hatcher said.

As for the future of Israel, Goldman said look to the past, or what he called the “utter failure” of the Oslo Accords.

“Large majorities of Israelis have concluded that whatever outcome emerges, it’s not going to come from that process,” he said. “So, I don’t think it’s so terrible to try something different.”

He said Israelis see civil war in Syria, a dictatorship in Egypt, instability in Gaza after the handover and the presence of Iran surrounding them.

“The Israelis look at all of this and say, ‘We would be crazy to take any big steps,’” he said. “That is the overwhelming consensus.”

What about the embassy, the Golan Heights and moves towards the end of a two-state solution?

“At each stage of the Trump administration’s increasing support for Israel, it’s been said that the Arab states won’t stand for this. There will be statements. There will be riots,” he said. “The response has been, if not entirely accepting, more muted than I think anyone would have predicted.

“Here again, I think the Trump administration is challenging expectations made a long time ago that may no longer be accurate.”