Welcome to Newscoop Footnotes, a weekly review of important news no one’s talking about.
Hi, I’m Zoe Licata.
This week and next, we’ll be reviewing some big issues in the Middle East. All are bound up with U.S. domestic politics. Each also impacts prospects for peace in the Middle East, and could have serious global ramifications.
Today, we’re looking more closely at the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Israel last Monday, May 14th, which was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at President Trump’s direction. While the embassy celebrations were taking place in Israel on Monday, there were enormous protests just over the border in Gaza, with Palestinians protesting to return to the homes and land they lost in 1948 when Israel was founded.
The U.S. decision to move the embassy has received near-universal condemnation. Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote in his recent op-ed for the Washington Post that in moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Trump made two significant errors: first, he failed to place the move within a broader context, not making it clear that East Jerusalem could still be the capital of a future Palestine; and second, that he scheduled the embassy move the day before Palestinians observed what they call their “Naqba” or catastrophe, which commemorates the Israeli expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Trump’s move “the art of the giveaway,” accusing Trump of having given away “one of the most valuable leverage tools in American Middle East diplomacy”, in exchange for what Friedman saw as “diplomatic pornography.”
But as Friedman stressed, there were clear political reasons for Trump’s decisions. Just before the embassy event, the Trump and Netanyahu mega-donor Sheldon Adelson wrote a $30 million check to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC supporting House Republicans. And a number of extreme-right American evangelical speakers were then brought in to speak at the embassy event. One of them, Robert Jeffress from Dallas, was notorious for saying that Jews, Mormons, Hindus and Muslims would all go to hell, and that Catholicism is an instrument of Satan. Which led former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to tweet out on May 13th that “Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.”
So why was Jeffress given that distinction? Turns out that more than 80 percent of evangelicals, comprising about 36 percent of the American electorate, voted for Trump in 2016. And according to a 2015 LifeWay poll, 73 percent of evangelicals believe that “events in Israel are part of the prophecies in the Book of the Revelation,” and that the return of the Jews to all of Israel will usher in the second coming of Christ.
But while the holy city of Jerusalem figures prominently in that evangelical world view, the Jewish people do not — except as a means to an end. They are seen by many evangelicals as only the tools for fulfilling biblical prophecy, and that only those Jews who convert to Christianity will in the end be “saved.” Bibi Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders seem undisturbed by this. As Chaim Silberstein, a leader in the Israeli Beit El settlement in the Palestinian West Bank says: “…until that time — there’s lots of issues we can work on together, to our mutual benefit.”
This type of Christian Zionism has been criticized intensely by religious and political leaders the world over, and it is alienating many American Jews. But it serves the political objectives right now of both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. president Donald Trump. Netanyahu positions himself as defender of Israeli nationalism and Christian holy sites, and evangelicals are rallying to support his nationalist agenda. Donald Trump borrows from all of it to boost his own evangelical voter base. That Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, is evangelical also serves the greater GOP political strategy.
Tom Friedman tells us that all of this points to the Jerusalem events having been “designed to advance the Republican mid-term agenda” in the U.S. With both Trump and Netanyahu under investigation in their respective countries, and the GOP Congress poll numbers falling rapidly, all of them may feel they need support wherever they can find it. Unfortunately, their calculation seems to be that political survival outweighs the value of Middle East peace.
This has been the latest edition of Newscoop’s Footnotes – important events getting too little attention. Tune in next week for more.