Reagan and Begin, Bibi and Jerry: the theopolitical alliance of the Likud party with the American Christian "right".

AuthorWagner, Donald

On 19 January 1998, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington, D.C. for what the press characterized as a critical showdown with President Clinton concerning the faltering Middle East peace process. Shortly after arriving, Netanyahu went directly to a gathering of the Christian "right" where Jerry Falwell and over 1,000 fundamentalist Christians saluted him as "the Ronald Reagan of Israel."(1)

Netanyahu's meeting with the Christian "right" prior to the important session with the President was simultaneously strategic and symbolic. For one, the ideologically conservative Likud Party and its advocates in the U.S. Jewish Lobby (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, etc.) were issuing a "Declaration of Independence" from the Labor-oriented Clinton Administration and its approach to the Middle East peace process, also known as the Oslo Accords. A second development was Netanyahu's ability to consolidate political support within the Republican "right," a matter that seems to have been advanced considerably during a meeting with Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, later that same evening.

As for his role, Jerry Falwell pledged that he would embark upon a campaign to contact over 200,000 Evangelical pastors, asking them to "tell President Clinton to refrain from putting pressure on Israel,"(2) a message Gingrich echoed at a press conference the next day. Netanyahu could now rest in the relative comfort that he had sufficient influence within the United States Congress concerning the formulation of Middle East policy. For the time being, the Clinton Administration would be unable to counter Likud strategies on a variety of issues, as Israel continued accelerated settlement construction and delays in military withdrawal from previously agreed upon West Bank positions.

As for the President, a strange coincidence occurred on the very day of his anticipated meeting with Netanyahu. On the morning of 20 January 1998, initial news broke concerning the President's sexual exploits with intern Monica Lewinsky. Concern over the stalled Middle East peace process vanished as interest shifted to an issue that would consume both Congress and the American public for the next year: a sex-scandal in the White House. The shift in focus was evident two days later during the press conference with a visibly angered U.S. President and humiliated Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. The Middle East peace process had been completely upstaged by news of the Lewinsky caper. Later that afternoon, Netanyahu left Washington, D.C. in a far stronger political position than when he arrived some 72 hours earlier and the Clinton Administration's critique of the Likud leader's noncompliance with the Olso Accords were temporarily forgotten.

The Netanyahu meeting with Rev. Falwell and his followers presents an interesting political and theological convergence that has a fascinating but relatively unknown history. The Netanyahu-Falwell meeting was hardly a surprise, but the priority given to it by Netanyahu and his U.S. "handlers" was significant. In the following essay I will focus on the recent history of the Likud-Christian "right" relationship in the United States, examining its emergence as a political reality during the Carter Administration and its peak phase during the Reagan presidency. Then we will turn to its resurgence during the Clinton Administration and briefly examine one case that illustrates the effects of this alliance on United States' Middle East policy.


Christian fascination with "Israel" and its prophetic role at the end of history has been an important but consistently minor theme in Christianity since the days of Jesus and the early Church. Most scholars who specialize in this field, such as Bernard McGinn of the University of Chicago,(3) accept the theory that the first generation of Christians were influenced by Jewish Apocalyptic(4) thought, which itself can be traced to Persian religious influences (Zoroastrianism, etc.) during Israel's captivity by the Babylonians and later the Medes and Persians (587-530 BCE). Jewish Apocalypticism was gaining acceptance during the 200 BCE-135 C.E. period, the same era in which Christianity emerged. One sees this same influence in the New Testament writer Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension, which inserts an Apocalyptic question into the mouths of unnamed Disciples: "Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Interestingly, Jesus rebuked the Disciples and responded: "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that God has fixed by his own authority" (Verse 7).

Apocalyptic eschatology also shows up occasionally in the other Gospels (Matthew 24), the early Pauline letters (I Thess. 5:1-11), and throughout the Book of Revelation. While this model of eschatology did not dominate early Christianity it did surface at intervals, particularly in advance of a centennial year or following a significant crisis.

One version of this eschatological thought that gained a degree of popularity in the early church is called "historic premillennialism," which believed Jesus would rerum to earth prior to the establishment of his thousand year kingdom ("pre-millennial" = before the 1000 year Kingdom). We see expressions of this model of eschatology in I Thessalonians 4-5; and in the "Didache" and Shepherd of Hermas (both Christian writings dated in the 100150 C.E. era). Also, the Christian theologians Justin Martyr (160 C.E.) and Tertullian (c. 190-220 C.E.) utilized premillennial imagery in their writings. Apocalyptic themes became a minor dimension of Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, except during centennial or milennial periods. For example, during the 990-1000 C. E. decade there was considerable speculation about the end of the world and the return of Christ, but the phase quickly passed.

However, the Cabalists, a theosophical and mystical Jewish movement, gained popularity in medieval Spain It retained the Apocalyptic imagery in speculation about such issues as the anticipated return to Jerusalem, the arrival of the Messiah, and the end of history. The Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in the 1490s increased speculation about these themes and disseminated them throughout western Europe, a process that soon converged with the Protestant Reformation (16th Century C.E.). Some theologians believe the dissemination of Cabalistic Apocalypticism were combined with the more literal interpretation of the Bible by the second generation of the Protestant reformers, leading to a renewed interest in millennial theology.

While the Apocalyptic themes gained currency within certain Protestant movements, they did not receive broad public support until the eighteenth century when a particular version of premillennial eschatology emerged in England called "futurist premillennialism." It was rooted in three streams of British Evangelical Christianity: 1.) historic premillennialism, as described above but with features unique to England; 2.) the literal hermeneutics (the theology of Biblical interpretation) of English Puritanism and its unique view of certain eschatological themes; and 3.) British fascination with the idea of Israel and a view that postulated that the British people were the "new Israel," also called "British Israelism." With the exception of the Reformation's influence, all three themes can be traced back at least to the sixth century C.E. We see them reflected in the English historian, Venerable Bede (673-735 C.E.), and the first known British literature, "The Epistle of Gildas" of the sixth century C.E.

For our purposes, let us look briefly at the sixteenth century and mention two of the early British premillennialists who were forerunners of the "futurist premillennial" movement. In 1585 Thomas Brightman, an Anglican priest, wrote a controversial treatise titled "Apocalypsis Apocalypseos."(5) Brightman called upon Christians to interpret prophetic texts concerning Israel as having a future, literal fulfillment and told believers to look for certain prophetic signs that could be decoded from the Bible. Among the signs will be the return of Jews to Palestine and in particular their gathering in Jerusalem to rebuild the third Jewish Temple. After considerable controversy, Brightman was forced to withdraw the treatise and reject these beliefs, but they simply went underground.

A generation later an influential lawyer and disciple of Brightman, Henry Finch, a Member of the British Parliament, published similar views in 1621. Finch called upon the British people and Parliament to support Jewish settlement in Palestine in order to fulfill Biblical prophecy. In his influential pamphlet, Finch displayed the fusing of Christian Apocalyptic thought and a literal hermeneutic, calling for the establishment of the Jewish nation: "[The Jews] shall repair to their own country, shall inherit all of the land as before, shall live in safety, and shall continue in it forever."(6) Finch went on to call for the government and people of England to support this restoration, both to fulfill the prophetic scriptures and to receive God's blessings as instrument of the eschatological realization.

Initially, these early advocates of futurist premillennialism were dismissed as lunatics or perhaps worse, as supporters of the anti-monarchy movement in England. Their views fell into disfavor for a time after the collapse of the Cromwell "experiment." However, the seeds of this theology ran deep in the British imagination and would lie dormant for only a season.

Following the American and French Revolutions, many Europeans felt insecure, sensing that their world was collapsing. Historian LeRoy Froom reflects this sense of doom and its role in eschatological expectation:

After the...

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