Growing ties between pro-Israel forces and a controversial, hardline “Christian Zionist” movement will move into the national spotlight at next week’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby.
One keynoter at the event, which annually draws hundreds of lawmakers, administration officials, diplomats and political hopefuls, will be Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), author of several books about biblical prophecy and an opponent of new territorial concessions to the Palestinians on biblical grounds.
Rev. Hagee, who will speak at a Sunday plenary, was also a leading backer of a controversial Christian broadcast venture in Israel that critics charge sought to convert Jews.
And a time when pro-Israel forces are being accused of beating the drums for war with Iran, Rev. Hagee seems to believe such a conflict is both inevitable and necessary. In his apocalypse-oriented book “Jerusalem Countdown,” he predicted a nuclear showdown with Iran and said, “The end of the world as we know it is rapidly approaching … rejoice and be exceedingly glad, the best is yet to be,” according to a Wall Street Journal report posted on the CUFI Web site.
Last year, Rev. Hagee told the Jerusalem Post that “I would hope the United States would join Israel in a military pre-emptive strike to take out the nuclear capability of Iran for the salvation of Western civilization.”
Israeli historian Michael Oren will also speak at Sunday’s plenary.
Giving Rev. Hagee such prominence at the premier pro-Israel gathering of the year — he attended last year’s conference — troubles some AIPAC supporters.
Rabbi Barry Block of Temple Beth El in San Antonio—the home of the John Hagee Ministries and to his 18,000-member Cornerstone Church—said he hopes the minister’s presence will be balanced by “Christians who support Israel but who do not share the ‘end of days’ theology and extremist anti-Palestinian positions and anti-Muslim prejudice so often spewed by Pastor Hagee.”
Rabbi Block, who said he is an “AIPAC supporter” and participates in local activities of the lobby, added that “there are those I love and respect in my community who believe we should work with Pastor Hagee on the important concern we share—the welfare of the state of Israel. However, despite what may be good intentions, I don’t think Pastor Hagee’s activism is good for Israel.”
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, cofounder of a We site that opposes Christian right church-state policies, said that Hagee’s AIPAC appearance will mark a “decisive point when the costs of a relationship with Hagee couldn’t be clearer. AIPAC has to know that Hagee’s push for an attack on Iran is not based on a logically constructed policy but on cherry-picked biblical verses. And it is only the first step to the end-times scenario that Hagee enthusiastically predicts will engulf Israel in a devastating war.”
A former AIPAC official said giving Rev. Hagee a key speaking slot represents one more step toward an AIPAC embrace of the Evangelicals that began more than two decades ago, and warned that it has political risks.
“This sends out a message of an endorsement by AIPAC at a time when these Christian groups seem to be losing power in Congress—and when the Democrats, who have long opposed this cozying up to the religious right, are now in power,” this activist said.
But many pro-Israel leaders believe Rev. Hagee and other Christian Zionists, representing a growing political force, are a critical addition to the pro-Israel coalition — especially as “mainline” Protestant churches continue to castigate Israel for its West Bank policies.
But Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a strong critic of many Christian right groups, said he is not alarmed about Hagee’s role in the policy conference.
“I think there is a role for him,” Foxman aid. “He has earned a certain recognition with the community because of his support for Israel.”
Foxman said he expects Hagee will get a good reception. “It’s a friendly platform,” he said. “I’m sure an overwhelming majority may be pleased with what he says.”
That reflects an annual conference expected to strike a hawkish note on a number of issues, starting with the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Other keynote speakers will include Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and—health permitting—Vice President Dick Cheney. The current Israeli government will be represented by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Ambassador Sallai Meridor.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, several sources said, will tell delegates that increased aid to Palestinian moderates is in Israel’s interests—a call that may conflict with a major AIPAC theme.
In a show of both political clout and bipartisanship that has become routine for AIPAC, the conference will feature speeches by all four top congressional leaders.
AIPAC says “more than 6,000 pro-Israel activists, including 1,200 students representing over 390 campuses” will attend. “Lead by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and both House and Senate Republican leaders all speaking under the same tent, this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference underscores the bipartisan nature of American support for Israel,” according to AIPAC spokesman Josh Block. “The conference schedule also underscores the long history, breadth and diversity of America’s centuries of support for the Jewish homeland in Israel.”
Anxiety about Iran will dominate the conference, and it is a major element in the “action agenda” that, at least in theory, sets the group’s goals for next year. Members of the executive committee will debate and vote on the statement on Sunday.
Proposed new language in the policy statement supports using “all means necessary for the United States, Israel and their allies to prevent Iran and other nations from developing nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and the vehicles for their delivery.”
Lobbying for tougher sanctions legislation will also be a top priority for AIPAC delegates when they blanket Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Protecting Israel’s big chunk of foreign aid has traditionally been a top AIPAC priority, but this year the group will also emphasize “closely monitoring assistance to countries that are not supporting American objectives in the region.”
At the top of that list: the Palestinian Authority. Congress has frozen an administration request for $86 million in emergency aid to boost Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ forces.
Pro-peace groups say they will not press AIPAC to soften its language about the Palestinians, as they have done in the past. Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), will come to the executive committee meeting loaded with amendments aimed at toughening them.
The AIPAC conference will be the usual display of political clout, but the group also faces some new challenges, including a new Democratic leadership that remains strongly pro-Israel but less in lockstep with AIPAC than their Republican predecessors.
Congressional observers say AIPAC remains a legislative powerhouse, “but more lawmakers will now feel free to ask questions, especially about routine and nonbinding resolutions praising Israel and criticizing the Palestinians,” said a longtime pro-Israel lobbyist.
But AIPAC’s influence on signature issues like Iran and foreign aid to Israel remains intact despite the partisan shift, said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn.
“AIPAC has successfully maneuvered itself through Democratic and Republican administrations, Democratic and Republican Congresses, and there’s no reason to think they won’t do it again,” he said.
Kahn said AIPAC has also strengthened itself by aggressively “pushing the Orthodox community to engage. You have more and more Orthodox rabbis who are touting AIPAC and touting joining AIPAC. AIPAC understands that if you get the rabbis on board, they in turn will press the community to get involved.”
That “dramatic shift,” he said, may make AIPAC “less representative, but it also strengthens the group as voices on Mideast policy become more diverse.
“It’s a source of strength because this is a community that is comfortable with the direction AIPAC has taken in recent years,” he said.
AIPAC also faces a rising challenge from Jewish groups on both the right and the left that take a different tack on Mideast policy, and that are increasingly active on Capitol Hill.
The Zionist Organization of America on the right and both Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum on the left are expanding their lobbying, targeting areas where they feel AIPAC does not represent them.
None can come close to eclipsing AIPAC, although IPF, Washington sources say, is starting to build a network of campaign contributors who also support the group’s perspective on Mideast affairs—a key element in AIPAC’s strength.
Still, on the verge of the 2007 policy conference, they point to a changed lobbying environment for what remains the pre-eminent group on the pro-Israel scene.