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Staunch evangelical allies of Israel upset by Trump’s outburst on Netanyahu

President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israeli prime minister, attend the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House on Sept. 15, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM — One of former president Donald Trump’s major evangelical backers Monday condemned recently reported attacks by Trump on former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and warned that he risked alienating his Christian base by distancing himself from the Israeli leader.

Trump, in interviews published this week by Axios reporter Barak Ravid, railed against his onetime ally for congratulating President Biden on his victory once it became clear that the Democrat had won the 2020 election. Trump said the call was a betrayal of their relationship and the several controversial changes in U.S. policy toward Israel that Trump had ordered during his term, including moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

“F--k him,” Trump was quoted as saying of Netanyahu. “The first person that congratulated [Biden] was Bibi Netanyahu, the man that I did more for than any other person I dealt with.”

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In the interviews, Trump also said Netanyahu never seemed genuinely interested in seeking peace with the Palestinians. Conversely, the former president heaped praise on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I thought he wanted to make a deal more than Netanyahu,” Trump said, according to accounts of the interviews published by Axios.

Evangelical leaders in the United States — many of whom are ardent supporters of both Trump and Israel — have been largely silent on the former president’s reported comments. But Mike Evans, one of Trump’s early evangelical backers, said he was “horrified” by the sentiments and said they would offend significant numbers of evangelical voters.

Evans, a Texas-based evangelical and former adviser to Trump, in a letter to the former president that he shared with a Washington Post reporter, implored him to “understand that Benjamin Netanyahu,” in Evans’s view, “has much greater support among evangelicals in America than you.”

“Please, I beg of you, don’t put us in the position to choose between you and Bible land,” the letter said. “There is no possibility you can win again if Bible-believing evangelicals see you as the ‘F--k Netanyahu’ president who . . . blames the State of Israel, and not the Palestinians, for not making peace,” the letter said.

Not all U.S. evangelical leaders agreed that Trump’s outburst would cost him Christian support.

“The relationship between American Evangelicals and Bibi preceded the relationship with President Trump by many, many years,” said Johnnie Moore, a former Liberty University official who helped organize Trump’s evangelical advisory board in 2016. “But Bibi was an Israeli prime minister, and Trump was an American president. There’s a difference between the two for Americans.”

Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church, one of North America’s largest churches, and a former member of Trump’s faith advisory council, said the two leaders should get back on the same page. Trump must “reconcile with Benjamin Netanyahu and clarify his reported remarks,” he said in an emailed statement.

“Even if the alleged comments are true, it doesn’t diminish in the least that President Trump’s policies have been the most pro-Israel in history,” said Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, who led a prayer at the 2018 opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

Evans, who called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “a pathetic, bitter little man” when he took office, has since made a measure of peace with the new government and was invited to speak at a media event organized by the prime minister’s office in November.

“Evangelical support for Israel is rooted in our Biblical tradition which transcends both politics and personalities,” Sandra Parker, the action fund chairwoman for Christians United for Israel, the largest U.S. pro-Israel lobby, said in an email Tuesday.

White evangelical protestants overwhelmingly vote Republican and supported Trump in the 2020 elections, according to the D.C.-based Pew Research Center. Though evangelical voters and advocacy groups are a cornerstone of the United States’ pro-Israel camp, studies have also shown younger American evangelicals growing less attached to Israel.

In contrast, American Jews typically vote for Democrats, and a majority cast their vote for Biden in 2020. Most American Jews had a negative view of Trump’s policies toward Israel, according to a 2020 Pew poll, though a majority of Orthodox Jews, the smallest and most observant of the United States’ Jewish denominations, gave Trump the highest ratings. Trump’s denunciation of Netanyahu came as a surprise in Israel, where the former prime minister had touted his relationship with Trump as one of his key political and diplomatic assets.

Netanyahu largely took credit for Trump’s decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump, in his summary of the policy shifts, acknowledged the political bounce some of those moves were expected to give Netanyahu as he campaigned to keep his job. The Golan announcement, for example, was made just before the April 2019 election, when Netanyahu was trailing in the polls.

“He would have lost the election if it wasn’t for me,” Trump said in the interviews, which form part of Ravid’s new Hebrew-language book, “Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East.”

Trump describes a geopolitical-buddy relationship that began to sour over Netanyahu’s reluctance to engage with possible peace negotiations. The rift widened over Netanyahu’s push to annex West Bank settlements. 

But the former president reserved his greatest fury for Netanyahu’s decision to join other world leaders in congratulating Biden when news organizations declared him the election winner. Despite Trump’s assertion, Netanyahu was not the first to call the president-elect and was criticized by some for waiting a half-day before offering his good wishes in a statement and video.

“I haven’t spoken to him since,” Trump is quoted as saying.

When asked for comment, Netanyahu’s office referred to an earlier statement saying the long-standing alliance between the two countries made it “important to congratulate the incoming U.S. president.”

Without addressing Trump’s specific expletives, Netanyahu thanked the former president for “his great contribution to the state of Israel and its security.”

Berger reported from Washington. Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

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