World

How The American Religious Right Is Making The Middle East Peace Process Impossible

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner/ThinkProgress/AP

EFRAT, OCCUPIED WEST BANK — Oded Revivi leaned back in his chair, pausing to think during an hour-long discussion with a group of American journalists in October. His gaze drifted over to a nearby wall, where a massive, full-color map depicted Efrat, the Israeli settlement where he serves as mayor. The highly detailed satellite image traced the outline of the oddly-shaped town, home to about 9,500 people and situated just South of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Printed above it was a scripture passage written in Hebrew, and another adorned glossy promotional materials splayed out on the table in front of him — Ruth 4:11, “May you prosper in Efrata.”

After a few moments, he leaned forward to answer a question: How does he justify the existence of his settlement in the Palestinian territories, which the United Nations believes is illegal under international law and which the United States government says is illegitimate?

“I specifically do not choose to start with the biblical argument,” Revivi, who is an Israeli Jew, said. “But when [Former Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin met with different leaders of the world, negotiating with them on all the different parts of Israel, he said basically, ‘We’ve got the Bible. That’s our proof.’ He’s right.”

When defending his community, Revivi may prefer legal arguments to religious ones. But the offhand reference to holy scripture shared by both Christians and Jews hints at a longstanding — but often unreported — transnational religious connection: Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, is credited with cementing the relationship between Israel and Evangelical Christians in the United States, openly courting the support of what are often called “Christian Zionists.”

To see evidence of this legacy, one need only look down the road. Efrat is home to the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, an organization that regularly hosts evangelical groups and leaders from the United States.

Taken at face value, conservative Christian support for Israeli settlements seems innocuous, or at the very least unsurprising — after all, the same land was Jesus’ home too.

But over the past few decades, the American Religious Right’s actions in the region have extended far beyond the broad consensus endorsing Israel’s right to exist, morphing instead into a form of faith-based activism that makes the area’s multitudinous issues ever more complicated. Often with the blessing of conservative politicians, funders, and pundits, right-wing Christian and Jewish groups in the United States have consistently offered financial assistance for the construction and maintenance of settlements in the West Bank that international law says are illegal, as well as lending support to fringe “outposts” that even the Israeli government often does not formally recognize. These constructions are passionately opposed by Palestinians, the international community, and the United States government, which has repeatedly called them a “barrier to peace.”

A boy, left, walks in the Jewish settlement of Efrat near the Palestinian West Bank town of Bethlehem Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008. Israel's government on Sunday postponed discussion of landmark legislation that would pay Jewish settlers to leave their homes in the West Bank, but said it would take up the matter next week. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

The settlement of Efrat, located in the West Bank.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Dan Balilty

Although the Israeli government briefly halted settlement construction during the early 1990s, it has continued largely unabated ever since, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration approved the building of new houses as recently as July. Such tactics are credited with stymieing Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month effort to broker a peace between Israelis and Palestinians in 2014, during which Israel endorsed action on 13,851 settlement housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — four times the number of previous years, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth — the primary sabotage came from the settlements,” an unnamed State Department official told Ynet News at the time.

The chief backer of these settlements is usually the Israeli government itself, but support from foreign religious groups helps the communities survive transitional periods. While this may be beneficial for the settlements, the American religious network fueling these constructions ultimately undermines the diplomatic efforts of the U.S. government and makes the peace process more difficult.

The (right wing) Christian case for settlements

Support for Israeli settlements in the U.S. goes back decades, with many pro-settlement organizations springing to life after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. Groups quickly formed as American nonprofits to take advantage of tax-exempt status, accepting donations and shuttling them across the Green Line — the border between Israel and the West Bank. The legality of this practice was briefly challenged in a 1991 federal lawsuit, but the IRS did not side with those who opposed it, and the tax-exempt groups won the court case and an appeal.

Oddly, similar practices are no longer acceptable in Israel. Although the Israeli government offered tax breaks for donations to settlements beginning in 1984, that policy was struck down twice — once in 1995, then again in 2000. As such, U.S.-based organizations slowly transformed into a mechanism for keeping smaller Jewish constructions afloat in the West Bank. Many of these groups are Jewish or not explicitly religious in nature, such as the Jewish National Fund, the One Israel Fund, and the Central Fund of Israel. The Central Fund in particular was the subject of a 2010 New York Times investigation, which concluded, “dozens of West Bank groups seem to view [Central Fund of Israel] as little more than a vehicle for channeling donations back to themselves.”

However, several other organizations are explicitly Christian in their language and outlook. One example is Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (CFOIC), a small but well-funded organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado dedicated to providing “a much needed vehicle for Christians to become better informed about the Jewish communities in the heartland of Biblical Israel, to visit these areas and to provide practical support for vital community needs.” The terminology used by the CFOIC website makes their political and theological perspective clear: It does not refer to the West Bank except in quotation marks, instead using the biblical phrase “Judea and Samaria” to describe the occupied land East of the Green Line between Israel and Jordan. It also does not use the term “settlements,” preferring to call towns in the West Bank “Jewish communities” populated by “pioneers,” and does not appear to mention Palestinian Christian communities currently living in the occupied territories.

Map showing the approximate location of Israeli settlements and outposts in the West Bank. Source: Peace Now.

Map showing the approximate location of Israeli settlements and outposts in the West Bank. Source: Peace Now.

CREDIT: Andrew Breiner/ThinkProgress

Kim Troup, the director of CFOIC’s U.S. Office and an avowed Christian, told ThinkProgress that her group, which was found in 1995, rejects the international consensus that the West Bank is an occupied territory.

“[The West Bank] was occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967, when Israel was attacked by the Jordanians,” she said, referring to the Six Day War. “So God performed a miracle in 6 days and the land became the Jews’.”

Still, she noted their support primarily comes from a literal interpretation of what they say is God’s law, not humanity’s.

“Genesis 12:3 — God promised to bless those who bless Abraham and his descendants,” she said. “So number one, we’re gonna bless. Number two, God said the land would always belong to the Jews, that it’s a Jewish homeland forever. We can get on board with that because we believe that the Bible is true. So seeing Jews come home to that land, seeing them turning the desert and making it blossom…it’s the fulfillment of prophecy.”

“Our support, our friendship is offered unconditionally based on those two things,” she added.

Troup and the CFOIC work to provide financial aid to settlements as often as possible, reportedly spending nearly $600,000 on West Bank settlements and outposts in 2014 alone, according to Al Jazeera. These projects are typically intended to be magnanimous, with staffers raising money for small community projects such as libraries, day care centers, and hot meal programs. But the group also accrues funds for “emergency and security” programs, including surveillance equipment to ward off “terrorist attacks and hostile infiltration.”

It is true that settlements are sometimes sites of deadly clashes between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank — violence that has only gotten worse in recent weeks, following a rash of stabbings perpetrated by young Palestinians. But just as Palestinians are known to attack Jewish settlers, so too have settlers launched violent attacks against Palestinians. For years, settler groups such as the “Hilltop Youth” have enacted so-called “price tag” attacks on Palestinian people and homes, seeking to exact a “price” for any action taken by Palestinians — or the Israeli government — against settlements.

These attacks are becoming increasingly extreme, culminating with the creation of right-wing militant groups such as The Revolt, which seeks the destruction of the Israeli government, the establishment of a Jewish kingdom, and the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Assailants affiliated with the group are blamed for burning down two historical Christian churches in Jerusalem earlier this year, as well as torching the home of a Palestinian family in July. A father, mother, and an 18-month-old infant were killed in the blaze, and vandals scrawled the word “Revenge!” under a Star of David on the charred house walls. Three months after the attack, Israeli authorities have yet to make arrests despite public statements indicating the government knows the identity of the attackers.

While pressure mounts to investigate Central Fund of Israel for allegedly financing the people who perpetrate these kinds of attacks, Troup maintained the CFOIC does not in any way condone such violence. Still, she wouldn’t rule out supporting a settlement where extremists lived — even if they targeted Christians — saying their presence wouldn’t “automatically preclude” assistance.

“If there was a community that that was all that they were …Then, yes — we would not support that and we would not do any projects there. However, there are many communities that are fully legitimate, established communities that there is an element that happens to live in that community,” she said. “So, just because somebody bad lives in the neighborhood, doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop our support to them.”

Masked Jewish settlers, background, and Palestinians, foreground, hurl stones at each other during clashes near the West Bank village of Deir Jarir near Ramallah in 2013.

Masked Jewish settlers, background, and Palestinians, foreground, hurl stones at each other during clashes near the West Bank village of Deir Jarir near Ramallah in 2013.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

Troup also insisted her group would never fund a settlement that isn’t approved by the Israeli government — but a map on the CFOIC website makes no distinction between state-sanctioned settlements and what many watchdog groups call outposts, and at least two of their campaigns ask visitors to donate to communities typically listed as outposts. Sondra Oster Baras, the director of CFOIC’s Israel office, later clarified to ThinkProgress via email that her organization backs these communities because “most so-called outposts are considered expansions of existing communities.”

This logic has been roundly criticized by activists. The Israeli government does demolish some settlement expansions each year, but according to an extensive report released in March from Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, many illegal outposts eventually become recognized by the Israeli government over time — often because they are touted as extensions to existing settlements. Over the course of months and years, a small outpost can accrue IDF military support (to protect Israeli citizens) and various utilities (provided by outside groups), all without the government taking action to tear it down.

One such community is Derech Ha’Avot, an outpost CFOIC supported as an extension of the Elazar settlement in 2012, but which didn’t begin the authorization process with the Israeli government until 2014. Reference to Derech Ha’Avot does not appear on the project webpage, but remains in a PDF description hosted on CFOIC’s servers. The project, which was to buy playground equipment, was hardly offensive on its own, and the fundraising goal was a paltry $6,350. But advocates at organizations such as Peace Now argue that these small efforts are what help establish a community, and that it doesn’t take much money to keep a tiny village running until it is formally recognized.

Guided by dispensationalist theology

The key to comprehending why CFOIC and other Christian groups prop up Israeli settlements lies in their curious shared theology, particularly a school of thought known as “dispensationalism.” An old Christian theological concept with a variety of interpretations, dispensationalism’s core idea is that God promised the Jewish people the land of Israel in the Old Testament. Many dispensationalists also believe the Jewish return to the Holy Land signals the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Darrell Bock, Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and published expert on dispensationalism, says the idea ultimately comes down to honoring God’s covenants.

“All dispensationalists will contend that Israel has a right to exist, and that God is in the business of completing promises to her even as he works though the Church,” Bock told ThinkProgress. “God is faithful to everyone to whom he has made commitments, including national Israel, so that one day Israel will come back into the fold. This is Romans 9-11, basically.”

“Where there is disagreement is — alright, what is that going to look like? And how much should we be occupied or preoccupied with how that related to the return?” he added.

This theology contradicts many traditional strains of Christianity, such as those who believe Jews forwent their claim to Israel when they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Others argue the Christian church “replaces” Israel, but Bock — who described himself as a “progressive dispensationalist” who doesn’t think Israel should “get a pass morally” — insisted that “the Church is not the new Israel.”

This also appears to be the spiritual inspiration for the work of Troup and the CFOIC.

“As far as spiritually how we feel about it…[ we look to] Genesis chapters 12 through 17,” she said. “God made a covenant with Abraham that was an eternal and lasting covenant. And he proclaimed that this land would be an everlasting inheritance for the Jewish people, for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And this would be where God had settled them on the land. This was to be their homeland forever.”

“We believe that that promise and that covenant still holds true today — absolutely. That it should be a Jewish homeland and that there should be no question whatsoever on who the land belongs to,” she said.

Texas evangelist John Hagee, head of Christians United for Israel, in 2008.

Texas evangelist John Hagee, head of Christians United for Israel, in 2008.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File

A similar theology can be found sprinkled throughout statements published by what is perhaps the most influential American Christian group funding various projects in Israel: Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Its founder, influential Texas-based pastor Rev. John Hagee, has reportedly funded various projects in Israeli settlements, an act he sees as a religious duty.

“Israel exists because of a covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 3,500 years ago — and that covenant still stands,” Hagee told a group in Jerusalem in 2010.

Hagee’s group has publicly decried U.N. resolutions calling for an end to settlements, and he argued in his 2007 book Jerusalem Countdown that Christians who support Israel will be blessed by God, saying, “When you do things to bless the Jewish people and the State of Israel, God will bless you.” He also trumpeted his support for Israel’s settlement of the land by citing Genesis 13:14-17, writing, “We must support Israel’s right to the land because God said so!”

Despite Hagee’s influence in the region (he regularly meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who spoke at CUFI’s conference earlier this year), the pastor is also known for pairing dispensationalism with even more fringe theological and historical ideas. In Jerusalem Countdown, for example, Hagee essentially argues that Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves, writing, “It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews … that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced in Canaan and continuing to this very day.”

His unusual religious positions also have a way of showing up in Israeli political discourse. When Netanyahu stoked controversy in October for implicitly blaming the Holocaust on a Palestinian Mufti, his remarks triggered widespread condemnation from historians, politicians, and even the German government. But it wasn’t a new idea: Hagee made the same argument in Jerusalem Countdown years before, saying the Grand Mufti constitutes a “direct connection between Hitler and the Islamo-Fascists who are attacking Israel and have terrorist cells planted in America.”

Meanwhile, Hagee’s latest book Four Blood Moons draws on astronomy and scripture to make a somewhat apocalyptic prediction: Because of the uptick in blood moons, the pastor believes the next two years will see “something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.”

The American conservative movement…for settlements

In addition to direct donations, this movement — a spiritual fusion of settlement support, dispensationalism, and Christian Zionism — is shored up by a broad network of American political funders and elected officials. This powerful community was once bipartisan, and support for Israel broadly — specifically its right to exist and defend itself — largely remains as such, bolstered by the efforts of groups such as The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose official stance on settlements is somewhat vague. But the hardline pro-settlement caucus is now squarely rooted (with a few exceptions) in the Republican party’s base, especially among religious conservatives.

For example, a ThinkProgress investigation of IRS Form 990s uncovered a web of funders who give money to both Republican campaigns and organizations that support settlements. The Family Foundation of American billionaire and prominent GOP funder Sheldon Adelson gave $150,000 to Christians United for Israel in 2012-2013; the Christian Broadcasting Network, owned by Christian conservative and prominent Republican funder Pat Robertson, gave $15,000 to Christians United for Israel in 2006; the Pat Boone Foundation, run by famous singer and avid Mike Huckabee supporter Pat Boone, gave $3,000 to Christians United for Israel in 2007 and $500 to Christian Friends of Israeli Communities in 2008; and American Values, headed up by former GOP presidential candidate and supporter of Mitt Romney in 2012 Gary Bauer, donated $102,000 to Christians United for Israel from 2007 to 2010.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem during a visit to Israel in August.

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem during a visit to Israel in August.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

These donors, in turn, tend to support likeminded political candidates. This includes former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who has traveled to Israel “dozens of times” over the years and who refers to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria. Huckabee actively courted Adelson’s financial endorsement by likening the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran to a new holocaust, but his support for settlements is so deep that it’s reciprocal: He hosted a campaign fundraiser in the West Bank settlement of Shilo during a visit to the region in August, where he used biblical arguments to endorse Israel’s right to settle the occupied land.

“I wasn’t in the least hesitant to go to Shilo, in part because 3,500 years ago it was the capital of Israel, it was the seat of the Tabernacle, it is a place of great connection to the history of the Jewish people,” Huckabee said after the event, according to Bloomberg. “The notion of two governments working the same piece of land is unrealistic and unworkable.”

Fellow GOP presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz also visited Israel this year, where he met with politicians and spoke to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. He has generally articulated a more hands-off approach to settlements than Huckabee’s, but still de facto endorses the status quo by leaving the issue up to the Israeli government.

“The question of settlements is a question for Israel as a sovereign nation to decide,” he said in an interview with Real Clear Politics in October. “I don’t believe an American president should be dictating to the nation of Israel where Israelis can choose to live. And the fact that Israelis choose to live in Judea and Samaria is not justification for terrorism or murder.”

Although Cruz hasn’t claimed to be a hardline dispensationalist, other dispensationalists have already lifted him up as one of their own. When he declared that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel” during a deeply controversial speech to Middle East Christians in October 2014, Rob McCoy, senior pastor of Godspeak Calvary told the Washington Times that Cruz was effectively speaking in religious code.

“I believe like Cruz,” he said. “Cruz’s statement that ‘Christians have no greater ally than Israel‘ is dispensationalist.”

The influence of Christian Zionism within the GOP was on full display earlier in July during CUFI’s Washington Summit, which hosted six Republican presidential candidates — Huckabee, Cruz, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), former New York governor George Pataki, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Pataki and Bush were directly asked by the moderator to address settlement construction: Pataki dodged the question, but Bush called the Israeli government’s current settlement policy “acceptable.”

To be sure, Christian Zionism and dispensationalism are not synonymous with an aggressive pro-settlement agenda, and neither is support for Israel. Bock noted that many progressive dispensationalists pass the question of settlements over to God instead of humanity, and thus don’t form organizations because their cause doesn’t have “a political agenda that’s attached to it, other than to insist that Israel has a right to exist.”

And while groups such as CUFI aren’t single-issue organizations like CFOIC, Sen. Graham has highlighted the key difference between Christianity-focused bodies and other pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC. “AIPAC is bipartisan…Not so much for y’all,” Graham said at the CUFI conference, drawing laughter from the crowd.

But as the issue of settlements becomes a right-wing cause, CUFI and other groups are already assembling new organizations to pressure other politicians to their uphold their views. In July, CUFI created the CUFI Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) lobbying group the Washington Post declared the “pro-Israel NRA.” CUFI Action Fund’s first mission was an unsuccessful effort to defeat the Iran deal, but time will tell whether it will mirror Hagee’s passion for West Bank settlements.

In the meantime, groups such as CFOIC show no signs of ending their financial support for settlements. Troup continues to reject the notion that building cities in land international law deems occupied inhibits the Middle East peace process, arguing instead that Jewish communities bring more stability to the region.

“To say that the communities and the Jews living in Judea and Samaria are the obstacles to peace…I absolutely disagree with that wholeheartedly,” she said. “Their life is better when the Jews are there. There’s jobs, there’s money… the [Palestinian] quality of life is so much better than under Arab control,” she said.

“There are definitely some [Christians] on the opposite side of the spectrum, but we don’t worry about those,” she added.

Josh Israel also contributed to this report.