If you listen to anti-Israel conspiratorialists, U.S. policy toward Israel is dictated by the “Jewish lobby” or — since it gives anti-Semitic deniability (however implausible) — the “Israel lobby.” In fact, the biggest pro-Israel group in the United States is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and polling shows that the American people as a whole remain consistently pro-Israel.
CUFI members and leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., this week for their annual conference. Not surprisingly in an election year and especially one in which they have the opportunity to help fire the president — whom, it is fair to say, they loath — the group had a record turnout of 5,000. Nationwide it claims a membership of 1.1 million. While many CUFI members are of modest means, the group makes up for fundraising with activism and is consistently able to pummel politicians with e-mails, letters and phone calls when an “action alert” goes out.
Earlier this week I spoke by phone with the group’s driving force and founder, Pastor John Hagee. I asked him if he was surprised by President Obama’s treatment of Israel and the direction of the U.S.-Israel relationship. With great deliberation he answered, “I don’t think anyone expected to see daylight between the United State and Israel. He [Obama] made all of the right statements” during the campaign. He recalled Obama’s campaign visit to Israel and his 2008 speech to AIPAC. But Hagee then began to tick off the polices and conduct that sent a chill through U.S.-Israeli relations, beginning with the demand for “zero [housing] growth in Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem.”
I asked what the impact of Obama’s Israel stance has had on his group, which was, to put it mildly, not his biggest fan in 2008. He responds, “The impact on our members is, first, disappointment that causes them to be much more vocal.” If Obama’s economic policies and pronouncements have fired up economic conservatives, his stance toward Israel has galvanized pro-Israel evangelicals who are determined to turn out in force and oust the president.
The silver lining in the stormy U.S.-Israel relationship over the last 3 1/2 years has been an outpouring of support for Israel seen, for example, in the bipartisan ovations that greeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the joint session of Congress in May 2011. Hagee said, “I don’t think there is any doubt the American people are rallying to support Israel. About 65 percent of Americans support Israel; 17 percent approve of Congress. So Israel is five times as popular as Congress.” (He doesn’t say so, but it also makes Israel about 20 points more popular than Obama.)
In making the case that Israel should rank high on voters’ list of priorities, despite the prominence of the economy, he argued, “It is never wrong to do the right thing. Th right thing is whenever a friend is in trouble you are loyal to that friend.” After years of calling Israel our “closest ally” or “only friend” in the Middle East, Americans, Hagee argued, needs to show that by making Israel a top issue in the campaign.
He shares the view that Israel faces an existential threat from a nuclear- armed Iran. In his view, “What America should do is give its absolute assurance to aid and its absolute assurance to help Israel.” Iran, he told me, should understand it risks American action if it pursues its plans to mount a nuclear threat.
Earlier this year CBS’s “60 Minutes” ran a story decrying the treatment of Christians in Israel. That sparked outrage from a variety of pro-Israel groups and individuals and ten of thousands of e-mails and letters from enraged CUFI members. Hagee told me (with just a trace of incredulity that CBS could report any differently):“For a fact, the Christians who live under the authority of Israel have absolute freedom. These [Christians] living under the rule of radical Islam will be abused.”
I also asked Hagee what he thought about Obama’s remarks regarding entrepreneurs. He said, “From a scriptural basis every individual has value and is responsible for his own destiny.”He argued that Christian scripture reflects a “get-up-and-go” philosophy. As for Obama, he said carefully, “The president is a very intelligent person and has a very specific ideology. The ultimate supreme court — the American people — will judge [him] in November.”
Christian conservatives are typical of those voters who were unlikely to support Obama’s reelection, but who now are highly driven to throw him out. The number of net voters who will vote against Obama because of his approach to Israel should include not merely those who switch from Obama to Mitt Romney or 2008 Obama voters who stay home, but those additional voters who get off the sidelines and decide to give money, volunteer and vote to get rid of the president. If CUFI’s gathering and its leader are any indication, Christian conservatives will be among those who will, as the saying goes, crawl over glass to oust Obama.