Reagan and Begin, Bibi and Jerry: The Theopolitical Alliance of the Likud Party with the American Christian "Right"

By Wagner, Donald | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Reagan and Begin, Bibi and Jerry: The Theopolitical Alliance of the Likud Party with the American Christian "Right"


Wagner, Donald, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


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.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

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. …

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