WASHINGTON – Israel’s former ambassador to Washington caused a stir recently when he suggested that Israeli leaders should focus more on courting American evangelicals than American Jews, who he said are “disproportionately among our critics.”
But Ron Dermer’s remarks – in which he called evangelical Christians the “backbone of Israel’s support” in the U.S. – have taken on new resonance in recent days as a diverse coalition of Israeli political parties seeks to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power.
No one worked harder to cultivate ties between Israel and the U.S. evangelical community than Netanyahu, experts say, and many American Christian leaders are closely watching the political upheaval in Israel that will determine Netanyahu’s fate, likely on Sunday when Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is scheduled to vote on the coalition government.
The deep connections between Netanyahu and American evangelicals burst into view last weekend, after a controversial American pastor, Mike Evans, launched an unvarnished and highly personal attack on Naftali Bennett, the right-wing politician poised to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister under a deal he struck with centrist leader Yair Lapid and six other parties in Israel’s Knesset. The coalition includes hardline conservatives, center-left factions and a small Arab party – a possible first in Israeli politics.
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“You want to be in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood and Leftists. God have mercy on your soul,” Evans wrote in a public letter to Bennett. “You are a pathetic, bitter little man, so obsessed with destroying Netanyahu that you’re willing to damage the State of Israel for your worthless cause.”
Evans held a press conference in Jerusalem on Monday in which he apologized for his “rude” language attacking Bennett, but then repeated much of his broadside against the fragile coalition opposing Netanyahu. If approved, he said, the coalition would “waive a white flag (of surrender) to radical Islam.”
Other American evangelical leaders quickly disavowed Evans’ remarks, taking particular issue with his prediction that American evangelicals would abandon Israel if Netanyahu was ousted.
“His statement was absurd, it was unhelpful, and it is absolutely not reflective at all of the point of view of any evangelical leader that I know,” said the Rev. Johnnie Moore, who served as an informal spokesman for the group of evangelicals that advised former President Donald Trump.
Moore said American evangelicals should not be meddling in Israeli politics. And while Netanyahu is a revered figure among American Christians, he said, “I am without a doubt entirely sure that the evangelical friendship with Israel is stronger than any government, any political party, any prime minister.”
Marc Zell, an American Republican activist based in Israel, said he doesn’t think the coalition government, if approved, would cause a rupture in Israel’s ties with American evangelicals.
“Most evangelicals support Israel because of shared values and Israel’s eschatological role from a Christian perspective,” Zell said, referring to Evangelicals’ beliefs about “end times.”
Still, the firestorm over Evans’ remarks has highlighted the alliance between Netanyahu and conservative evangelicals in the U.S.
“He’s become a household name among Republicans. They love him, particularly the evangelicals,” said Shibley Telhami, an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East and professor at the University of Maryland who has done extensive polling in the U.S., Israel and the Arab world.
Telhami conducted a poll ahead of the 2016 presidential election that asked respondents which government leader they admired most in the world.
“Benjamin Netanyahu was number one, ahead of Ronald Reagan, among evangelicals,” he said.
Moore said there’s good reason for that depth of support.
“Unlike any Israeli figure since the founding of the modern state of Israel, (Netanyahu) has had direct relationships with evangelical leaders – and scores of them – for a very, very long period of time,” he said. Netanyahu “was willing to walk across a bridge (between Jews and Christians) as it was being built.”
Netanyahu now appears to be activating America’s conservative Christian leaders – or at least Evans – to help him stay in power, Telhami said. Evans said he met with several members of Israel’s parliament on Monday in an effort to persuade them to abandon the anti-Netanyahu coalition.
Zell said the bigger worry is a shift in younger American evangelicals’ attitudes of Israel.
“There is a growing generation gap among evangelicals that is not working to Israel’s advantage,” he said. “From this standpoint, it is possible that the policies of the new government – to the extent we can know what they will be – may actually appeal to ‘woke’ evangelicals.”
A poll conducted this spring by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the Barna Group showed support for Israel among young evangelicals dropped from 75% to 34% between 2018 and 2021. Telhami said his polls have yielded similar findings.
“This raises questions about the sustainability of the strong evangelical support for Israel that the Israeli right has cultivated for years and that proved reliable during the Trump administration,” he wrote in a recent analysis for the Brookings Institution.
In an interview, Telhami said younger evangelicals seem to view Israel more “through the prism of social justice … than through biblical prophecy or the strategic calculus that the some of their leaders are making.”
That may explain, he said, Dermer’s suggestion that Israel beef up its efforts to court American evangelicals over Jewish Americans, who generally lean toward the Democratic Party.
But Zell, who is the chairman of Republican Overseas in Israel, said that is not an effective strategy, no matter who emerges as Israeli’s prime minister on Sunday.
“We cannot ignore the attitude of American Jews, for no other reason than Israel’s detractors will inevitably use the lack of support for Israel among US Jewry as a weapon in their campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state,” he said in an email.
“American Jews need to outgrow their reflexive embrace of Democratic/Progressive talking points when it comes to Israel. By the same token, Israel needs to do a far better job in communicating with the American Jewish community and especially the younger Jewish populations.”
Contributing: Jotam Confino