Israeli officials increasingly view the growing evangelical Christian movement in the United States as a potent ally in the long struggle between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.
Because of their frequently literal interpretation of Abraham's covenant -- granting the land of Canaan to Abraham and his "seed" -- evangelical Christians make natural supporters of the Israeli cause, they say. The covenant forms a key Jewish Biblical claim to the land that is now Israel.
Politically, evangelicals attracted to Israel cover a wide range, from moderates who view the Jewish state as an underdog fighting for survival to fundamentalists convinced that Israel will play a central role in that final, apocalyptic chapter of history that climaxes with the second coming.
From either angle, they often end up supporting Israel. For example, a fundamentalist group calling itself the "Genesis 12:3 Committee," after the Biblical passage defining Abraham's covenant, has begun holding small demonstrations here against the U.S. sale of F15 warplane equipment to Saudi Arabia, warning of "divine intervention" against the Reagan administration if the sale is approved.
"Many Arabs, but not these Bible despisers, concede the remarkable divine proof of Jewish ownership of the land, implicit in miracles like Israel's 1967 victory," the group said in newspaper advertisements.
The evangelicals, according to an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, "are a pillar that Israel has in the United States. They number 10 times the Jews in America, and they are outspoken. Naturally, we look kindly on what they are doing."
In a demonstration of such interest, Begin conferred the Zionist Jabotinsky Award during a recent visit to the United States on the Rev. Jerry Falwell, political action group in the United States.
Israeli officials, noting that the evangelicals are 40 million strong in the United States, say they welcome the Christian backing regardless of its results. But, they add, the principal question is how it will be translated into practical terms -- through lobbying and other forms of pressure such as those exercised by the Moral Majority during the last U.S. election campaign -- and what effects it will have on Reagan administration policies.
Already there is promise. Some evangelical Christians in the United States make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and pay homage to the leaders of Begin's government as reverently as they visit the shrines along the Via Dolorosa, where Christ is believed to have walked to his crucifixion. They issue warnings that a great conflagration with the Soviet Union in the Middle East is a Biblical prophecy, but promise that the United States will come to Israel's rescue.
"I think a war with the Soviet Union is inevitable, if I read Bible prophecy property," said Pat Robertson, president of the Christian Broadcasting Network. "The chances are that the U.S. will come in as a defender of Israel. It looks like everything is shaping up."
In a dramatic expression of the growing Christian Zionist phenomenon, the most dedicated move here with their families, establishing small Christian kibbutzim where they live and wait for the Messiah. Others spend summers here and then travel and lecture abroad in support of Israel.
Chaya Fisher, director of the Pilgrimage Promotion Division in Israel's Ministry of Trade and Tourism, said 100,000 U.S. Christians visited the Jewish state in 1980 out of a total 250,000 American visitors. This is up only slightly from the recent past, he said, but visiting American Christians increasingly deal with Israel as a state rather than just a site for Bible history tours. Their itineraries reflect "an attitude to want to meet, get to know and understand Israelis and Israel with a positive, friendly outlook," he added.
During the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles last year, he recalled, an American evangelical group calling itself "Peace for Israel" came to join Israelis in the observances. It was led by Dr. George Giacumakis, director of the American Institute of Holy Land Studies here and founder of a new organization called the International Christian Embassy, formed "to show concern for the Jewish people and particularly for the reborn state of Israel."
Even more valuable to Israel, perhaps, are those within the United States who have organized pro-Israeli movements outside their churches and denominations. Some produce slick magazines and documentary films on Israel's behalf. Rabbi Mark Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee in New York offered particular praise for a high-quality magazine published by New Jersey evangelicals and a film called "His Land" produced by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and termed by Tannenbaum "a love poem for Israel."
Some of the proselytism goes over the airways of hundreds of evangelical radio stations and Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network television, as well as by way of such growing organizations as the Campus Crusade for Christ.
"For those people, the Bible is a political guide to their activities. They understand that the land of Israel was promised by God to Abraham. They have no problem with the West Bank. There's no question in their minds that the Bible is accurate in its geographical and historical description of the Jews' right to the land of Israel," said Zeev Chafets, director of Israel's government press office.
"Not only do they support Israel, but they particularly support Begin and the Likud government. How could we be displeased with that kind of friendship?"
The alliance appears surprising because, traditionally, Israel and the Zionist movement have had strong ties with U.S. labor and the northern liberal establishment, which includes many Jews and with which the evangelicals often take issue.
Falwell saved his most stinging criticism during a recent visit to Israel for liberal Christians, particularly those heading the National Council of Churches. He condemned the council for criticizing Israel's settlement policy and said millions of evangelicals in the United States support Israel's position against a Palestinian state in the West Bank.
During an Israeli-led tour of the portion of southern Lebanon that is controlled by Israeli-sponsored Christian militias, Falwell said, "The terrorists are here to murder women and children."
While viewing Lebanese houses destroyed by Israeli forces during their 1978 invasion, Falwell told an Israeli radio interviewer, "I've seen with my own eyes houses reduced to rubble by the terrorists who are bent on the destruction of Israel."
A private television station financed and run by a California-based evangelical group called "High Adventure" began broadcasting in the Israeli-backed enclave March 8, joining the group's radio station already broadcasting in the area in support of the militias and against Palestinian guerrillas who maintain strongholds in nearby Lebanese towns and hills.
In a recent screening of a documentary film on the history of Zionism and the birth of modern Israel, a Canadian producer, Jay Rawlings, told his audience, "We Christians know in our hearts that God is on the side of Israel, not the terrorist. That is why we are trying to do what we can for Israel."
The film, "Apples of Gold," is unabashedly onesided, making no attempt to present the Palestinian viewpoint.
Israeli information officer Chafets, speaking about the activities of the fundamentalists Christians, said, "What we don't know is what effect this will have on [President] Reagan, who clearly benefited in his election from the Christian right. Will they become a pressure group and will they affect policy? Those are the questions."