The anger in the evangelical communities in the United States was intense. “This is a statement that expresses the president’s hostile attitude,” said a notable Christian who is an activist on behalf of Israel. “The president has to apologize to Prime Minister Netanyahu,” demanded the organization Christians United for Israel, whose members number millions of Christian fans of Israel. This happened in October 2014, after an anonymous senior official in Barack Obama’s administration called Benjamin Netanyahu “a pathetic coward.”
This was a ridiculous uproar — senior Israeli officials said much worse things about Obama — and the firestorm seems even more ludicrous today, given the silence of the evangelicals in the last few days. Since Donald Trump’s harsh words about Netanyahu and Israel were published, it seems that the leaders of the influential Christian movements in the United States have swallowed their tongue. Perhaps you can understand why evangelical ministers have refrained from discussing Trump’s cursing Netanyahu, but also his political statements — he told journalist Barak Ravid that Netanyahu lied to the United States and caused the talks with the Palestinians to fail — and these statements have passed without comment from the Christian evangelical leadership.
Israel’s public strategy in the United States has gone through a major shift in the past decade. Israel’s relationship with the largest and most influential Jewish community in the world has been jettisoned in favor of relying almost completely on the evangelicals. This process has been led by Netanyahu and his associate Ron Dermer, who was for years a regular speaker in the megachurches of the South.
Their claim was simple: The evangelists were not only greater in number than the Jews, but especially more faithful and consistent in their support of Israel. “At the moment of truth,” Netanyahu claimed in secret conversations, “the Jews of America preferred Obama to us”— meaning that the Jews in the U.S. did not participate in the losing battle in Congress over the Iran nuclear agreement.
It would seem that the gamble on the evangelicals has paid off: About 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump, and their support influenced his decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. But in recent days, it seems that even the evangelicals’ support for Israel has a limit, and we see it in the hands of one person: Trump. Trump can curse Netanyahu and decide that the “Palestinians want peace more than Jerusalem,”** and none of the dozens of American ministers who are supposed to be the public Iron Dome dare to respond.
Trump is now getting ready to run again for president, and if he were not sure that the evangelicals were “in his pocket,” he would not dare to talk this way about Israel, which is supposed to be at the top of the evangelicals’ list of priorities. It seems that he is betting the anti-abortion justices whom he appointed to the Supreme Court and his promise to fight the Christian right’s “culture war” against the liberal left are more important to evangelical voters than their relationship with Israel and Netanyahu. The thundering silence of the evangelical leadership since the publication of the interview with Trump is a hint that he is right.
This silence is also an important sign for the Israeli leadership: The process led by Netanyahu and Dermer, the disengagement from American Jews, and the exaggerated reliance on the evangelicals is dangerous for Israel. The evangelicals are an important and influential public sect in America, but their power is limited to the Republican Party. Israel has to develop additional sources of support in America, including places in where there is an ongoing conversation about human rights, democracy and Jewish values.
*Editor’s Note: The original version of this article is available with a paid subscription.
**Editor’s Note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be independently verified.