With perfectly imperfect timing – the type of which Israel so often seems to excel (think of the 2010 announcement of new settlement construction just as then vice president Joe Biden visited the country) – Israeli authorities announced Sunday they were shutting down a new Hebrew-language station set up by God TV.
The reason given by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council is that the evangelical Christian station hid its true agenda: missionizing the Jews, ensuring that they will be “saved” through belief in Jesus.
The decision came less than 24 hours before Christians United for Israel – an organization that some believe has the potential to save Israel in the US against progressive voices calling for a reassessment of US-Israel ties – was to convene its annual conference, a conference that, due to the coronavirus, will this year be held virtually.
Even though more than 5,000 fervently pro-Israel evangelicals – the number who attended the conference last year – will not be on hand in Washington to make their presence known and voices heard, the conference is – as it well should – attracting the attention of Israel’s leaders.
President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz and Gilad Erdan, the next ambassador to Washington and the UN, are among those Israelis scheduled to address the conference via video hook-up late Sunday night.
The message to the evangelical community is clear: Israel is extremely grateful and thankful for their crucial political support in the US. Another message that will surely be conveyed somehow is that the closing of the television station has nothing to do with how appreciative Israeli is of that support.
And strong support – the support of the vast majority of evangelicals who represent a quarter of the US population – has been critical in recent years in Israel garnering the backing in Congress of senators and representatives from states without significant Jewish communities: states like Louisiana and Oklahoma, Wyoming and Indiana.
Those looking to understand US President Donald Trump’s unprecedented strong support for Israel have long ago stopped trying to link it to an effort by the president to woo Jewish voters: outside of the Orthodox community, Trump is not going to make inroads with Jewish voters.
However, the evangelicals are a different story. Their numbers are huge, and they are major backers. Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv was widely seen as a step to please evangelical voters, not Jewish ones.
There may be a tendency among some pro-Israel advocates to be intoxicated by the words of love and support for Israel that will come from the CUFI conference over the next three days, and a tendency to be complacent that with this army of believers behind it ISRAEL HAS NOTHING to worry about vis-a-vis American public opinion.
And while that support and love is genuine, it is not enough. That army is big, but it is not dominant in the US – a US now in the throes of a culture war. And the next time a Democratic president sits in the Oval office, the impact of the evangelicals in US policy will wane. Trump listened to them – some argue he was beholden to them – and wanted to please them with policies that fit their agenda, including policies on Israel. Jerusalem benefited enormously from that situation.
But if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins in November, he will not be listening to the evangelicals. Rather, he will be listening – and likely beholden to the same extent Trump is to the evangelicals – to the progressives in his own party who have a starkly different view of Israel and its policies than their fellow evangelical Americans.
The apparent defeat last Tuesday in a New York Democratic primary of a long-time pro-Israel stalwart like House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel to Jamaal Bowman, a candidate very much affiliated with the Progressive wing of the party that is hyper-critical of Israel, is a testament to the changing political sands in America.
Israel needs to be very much attuned to those shifting sands, and to craft policy accordingly. There will be super-strong words of support for Israel and of the opportunity to extend its sovereignty to Judea and Samaria during the duration of the CUFI conference. But Israel needs to remember that CUFI and the evangelical community it represents, though a very important part of America, is not all of America.
Israel needs evangelical support, the kind that will be expressed passionately over the next few days, and wants it. But for the country’s long term good, it also needs to make stronger inroads and connections on the other side of the US ideological and cultural divide.
The pendulum in US politics is likely, for the coming years, to swing wildly from one side in the American culture wars to the other. Israel needs strong allies in both camps.The strength of the support that will be expressed in the CUFI conference will highlight how well Israel is doing in one camp, while underscoring the problem the country has in the other. During a session on Tuesday entitled “View from the Hill,” eight senators and one congressman will speak, seven of whom are Republicans. That imbalance is one that Israel needs to notice and strive to rectify.