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Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 12:52:29 EST
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Falwell, Baptists pledge to resist Israeli settlement pullout: Netanyahu meets with Christian religious leaders during D.C. visit

American Atheists, AA News, #379
23 January 1998

In the midst of complex peace negotiations involving a long-awaited Israeli troop withdrawal from certain areas of the west bank, American fundamentalists—led by Jerry Falwell and key members of the Southern Baptist Convention—have vowed to prevent any plan for restricting or dismantling the controversial Jewish housing settlements on Palestinian land which have become a flash point of contention.

Two meetings earlier this week between President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu produced what the White House described as positive hopes for a settlement. Peace talks between the Israeli government, presently run by a Likud-religious political coalition, and the Palestinian Authority of Yasir Arafat have been stalled for over a year. Netanyahu and Likud have resisted any peace deals which would trade land for an agreement; and Mr. Netanyahu wants more action from Arafat's regime in curbing Islamic terrorist groups, which have stepped up their bombing campaign against Israeli targets.

U.S. negotiators want Israel to pull back from approximately 10% of the West Bank land which they presently occupy.

Enter Jerry Falwell

But the White House is frustrated that talks with Netanyahu are taking place against the background of religious right involvement by American groups. On Monday, Netanyahu hunkered down in meetings with Jerry Falwell, a key evangelical political figure and founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority movement. Falwell claimed that he was withdrawing from politics several years ago, and instead would concentrate on saving souls for Jesus. But in recent months, Falwell seems to have reentered the political arena, having formed a political action committee. He promised Netanyahu that churches would mobilize American evangelicals.to oppose any more land transfers to the Palestinians.

There are about 200,000 evangelical pastors in America, Falwell told the New York Times, and we're asking them all through e-mail, faxes, letters, telephone to go into their pulpits and use their influence in support of the state of Israel and the prime minister.

The Times noted that Netanyahu's meeting with Falwell and other religious leaders had angered President Clinton. The paper noted a second political motivation for Falwell, who has used his television program to sell a widely discredited videotape that accuses the president of peddling drugs and being involved in the death of Vincent Foster, the former White House deputy counsel who committed suicide.

American Jews who have supported Israel—but not always the Netanyahu government—were distressed at the prime minister's meeting with the controversial Falwell. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League described the gathering as crude and curious, and noted that evangelical groups throughout the country have been targeting the White House as part of their social agenda on issues such as school prayer, voucher plans and abortion.

Others at the private meeting included Morris Chapman and Richard Lee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and John Hagee, an apocalyptic signs and wonders evangelist from Texas. Jewish and Christian conservatives then rallied at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, at an event staged by Voices United for Israel, a group which has tried to mobilize religious groups to oppose any compromise with the Palestinians, including giving up territories.

A Problematic Relationship

While many American fundamentalists and evangelical groups support Israel, Jews—especially those who are secular—remain wary and skeptical of the enthusiasm displayed by religious leaders like Falwell. Some see the Voices United group as supporting a particular religious bias in Israeli politics. One Rabbi who had worked with other organizations seeking to open dialogue between Jews and Christians, said that he resigned from the Voice United organization because it reflected a partisan political stand which was anti- Rabin, pro-Likud. That statement referred to the government of former Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, who was assassinated by a religious fundamentalist. In May, 1996, Netanyahu defeated Labor candidate and incumbent Shimon Peres in a hotly-contested race which many saw as crucial to the direction of Israeli society and foreign policy. Netanyahu had to strike deals with extreme religious orthodox groups which quickly gained control of key government ministries; and since the election, Israel has been divided over the question of secularism and how much power the orthodox should wield. There has also been a shift in the tenuous peace process, and some have suggested that Netanyahu hard-line position has lessened the chances for a lasting settlement between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.

Even more problematic, though, is the relationship between Israel and elements of the American fundamentalist and evangelical community. Much of the religious right enthusiasm for Israel is based not on secular political notions, but a perception that the creation of the Jewish state in 1949 open a final chapter in Biblical prophecy; and some American evangelicals saw Netanyahu's razor-thin election victory in 1992 as part of a larger, divine plan for the Second Coming of Christ.

The Los Angeles Times (June 8, 1996) noted, Evangelical beliefs include an end-time theological scenario in which the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is a prelude to the final battle between the forces of good and evil at Armageddon—the Greek name for a valley in northern Israel -- and Jesus' return to Earth. Religious right leader expressing approval of the Netanyahu victory and who saw it as an event laden with eschatological significance were Ed McAteer of the Religious Roundtable, and Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition. Robertson has branded the policies of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres as national suicide, and praised Netanyahu. He wants defensible borders. He wants the integrity of Israel. Robertson has also declared that the Israeli capture of Jerusalem during the 1967 war was a fulfillment of the prophecy that said the times of the Gentiles would be over...

A Blow Against Stability and Peace ?

It is hard to filter out the redolent religious aspects of the Israeli- Palestinian debate, but that might be necessary if any binding peace accord is to be crafted. Most secular Israelis and Palestinians are under siege in their respective camps from militant, religious groups. Mr. Arafat must contend with armed groups like the Hamas movement, which seek to drive Israel into the sea and establish a Muslim theocracy—something which, at least at the present time, most Palestinians probably would not support. The failure of the peace process, however, has energized extreme Islamists, who have positioned themselves as opponents to Arafat's corrupt and increasingly ineffective Palestinian Authority.

In Israel, secularism is also under siege. Orthodox Jews have mobilized around a host of culture war issues such as maintaining the Sabbath, rights for women, even the extent of archeological activity throughout the country. Secular groups like the Meretz Party have confronted the militants, who have tried to shut down traffic, restaurants and entertainment during the holy period.