Monday, March 21, 2005

Bush's vision: The role of Israel and Christian Right apocalyptic views

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process again on track for the moment, it's a good time to look at Bush's general view of the role of Israel in the Bush World Order.  (But see the latest complication in the peace process at the end of this post.) The combination of the "War on Terror" and the Christian Right's apocalyptic worldview have encouraged a policy so far on Bush's part to back hardline policies by Ariel Sharon's government and to not engage closely with the peace process.

This article gives a useful background on Bush's position: Peace in the Middle East: Now it's up to Bush by Gary Kamiya Salon 02/09/05

That endgame is no secret: In one form or another, it has been at the heart of the Camp David plan, the Taba talks and last year's back-channel Geneva Accords. A contiguous Palestinian state on almost all the West Bank, with minor territorial swaps to allow some of the large Jewish settlements to be incorporated into Israel; a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, with provision for Jewish access to the holy sites; and some face-saving compromise on the Palestinian refugees that does not alter the demographic nature of the Jewish state. This plan, with an international military presence to prevent terror attacks and massive aid to help the Palestinian economy and resettle the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who will not be allowed to return to their former homes in what is now Israel, will end the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. And everybody knows it.  ...

Even before 9/11, Bush was eager to please his fervently pro-Israel evangelical Christian base and siphon off Jewish votes from the Democrats. Himself a devout born-again Christian, he had religious and emotional reasons to favor Israel. He wanted to take a different path from the despised Bill Clinton, who had gambled and lost by trying to broker a last-minute peace deal. He was aware that his father lost the U.S. election after slapping Yitzhak Shamir over loan guarantees. He was under no pressure from Congress, which rubber-stamps pro-Israeli legislation. He was surrounded by hard-line Likudnik neocons like Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, as well as nationalist, pro-Israel hawks like Dick Cheney (who once said that Arafat should be hanged) and Donald Rumsfeld (who departedfrom official U.S. policy by referring to the "so-called occupied territories").

Then 9/11 happened, and Bush really got religion. If he had ever considered, even briefly, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be a classic case of asymmetrical warfare, with terrorism being the weapon of the weak; that the Israeli occupation and the settlements, not just Palestinian fanaticism and intransigence, might have played a role in the continued violence; that this conflict was at the heart of the confrontation between Islam and America -- those thoughts flew right out of his mind. Politics, history, grievance, context -- those murky matters, which make it impossible to sort out absolute God-given right from absolute evil, were never his strong suit anyway. With the mighty prophetic certainty of a Lear, he smote and divided the world into two categories: terrorists and freedom fighters. The Palestinian militants now became indistinguishable from al-Qaida. Bush and Sharon were embarked on the same crusade -- fighting evil. And that crusade against evil (justified by a bogus self-defense argument) ultimately led Bush to invade Iraq -- with its neocon backers waving the banner "The road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad."

Understanding the role of the Christian Right's point of view on Israel in today's Republican Party is really essential for understanding Bush's actions on this issue:  Extreme Makover by Brian Urquhart New York Review of Books 02/24/05 issue.  Urquhart is reviewing Anatol Lieven's book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.  Speaking of the view of rightwing Christian fundamentalists that Christian faith requires essentially uncritical backing for the most aggressive groups in Israel on foreign policy, Ariel Sharon's Likud Party and the settler movement, Urquhart writes:

This point of view has become a matter of fundamentalist religious belief. Lieven quotes Jerry Falwell as saying that "to stand against Israel is to stand against God." The Christian Zionist movement, of which the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, is a leader in Washington, is "a block of conservative Republicans whose strong support for the Jewish state is based on their interpretation of the Bible." Such beliefs, which disregard international law, generally recognized rights, rational discourse, or serious negotiation, fit conveniently with the kind of neoconservative thinking to be found in the now famous 1996 position paper "A Clean Break," written by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, among others, which advised the Likud government to insist on "permanent control of the occupied territories," as Lieven puts it. They do nothing to encourage moderation among Arabs and Muslims. After DeLay's visit to Israel in 2003, during which the Texas congressman told Israeli legislators that he was "an Israeli at heart," Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian legislator and negotiator, commented mildly that DeLay was not helping the cause of peace by "being more Israeli than the Israelis themselves."

The Clean Break paper to which he referred is from June 1996.  It was a political strategy paper for the Likud-headed government of Isreal at that time, and it included a number of recommendations for aggressive diplomatic and military policies in the Middle East.  Urquhart's refernce to it as reflective a kind of neoconservative approach to policy is a good description. 

It seems to me that many commentators on this paper have read more into it in terms of anticipating current American policies than is warranted.  Yes, it reflects an aggressive, neoconservative kind of thinking and it throws light on the Bush administration's general inclinations in the Middle East.  But it's not some long-term plan that is now being executed by the Bush administration.  Some of Iraq War critics on the paleo-conservative right have taken this as a sign of a Jewish conspiracy.  Not that they need actual evidence or documents to come up with their anti-Semitic twist on things.

Actually, the PNAC stategy paper to which I've referred before "Rebuilding America's Defenses" (2000) is much more informative on the general outlook of the neoconservative strategists and the Bush administration's actual policies.

This article by Deborah Caldwell gives a good sketch of the Christian Right view of Israel in the Apocalypse and how it affects Republican attitudes toward the Middle East:  The Rapture Factor by Deborah Caldwell, (June 2002?). has an unfortunate habit of not dating their articles, but the related comments begin in June 2002.

Caldwell's interview with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention also addresses the subject:  Why Christians Must Keep Israel Strong (Jan 2005?; accessed 03/19/05).  As Land describes it:

Evangelicals support Israel for several reasons--number one, because they believe the Bible teaches that God gave [Jews] that land forever and that they are God’s chosen people; and number two, that God blesses those that bless the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews. Consequently, we believe America needs to bless the Jews and Israel because if we bless the Jews and support Israel, God blesses us. And if we don’t, God curses us. And if you want the negative example of that: I can’t think of any countries with more tragic histories in the 20th Century than Germany, Poland, and Russia--three of the most historically anti-Semitic countries in the world. And America has been blessed beyond anything we could have deserved. And many evangelicals, including myself, believe that one of the reasons for that is that we have been the least anti-Semitic country.

Caldwell proceeds to challenge him about anti-Semitism among evangelical Christians, and his response is basically total denial.  If this interview is any indication, the man is not at all serious about addressing Christian anti-Semitism.  His response to her question about the sensitive issue of Christian proselytizing among Jews is typically dismissive of Jewish concerns about this:

I’m often asked this question: shouldn’t we respect other religions? Well, we do. But when they say we don’t have the right to witness to them, they don’t respect our religion because at the foundation of our faith is a command from Jesus Christ to go into all the world and preach the gospel and to seek to make disciples of all nations. If they’re going to respect my faith, they have to understand I’m going to, in anon-coercive manner, seek to share my faith in Jesus Christ with them.

In another Beliefnet column, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw addresses some of the theological implications of this particular Christian Right view about Israel:  How to Bless Israel by Richard Mouw, (June 2002?).

While I tend to hang a little loose on questions of “Bible prophecy,” I do take the issues at stake here very seriously. Indeed, it isn’t just evangelicals who take the question of Christian solidarity with Jewish people seriously. Roman Catholics have struggled with this topic in recent years, especially in light of much-publicized debates over what the Vatican did or did not do to protect the Jews in European countries during World War II. And for many Protestants the role of the church in Nazi Germany—a conflict that led, for example, to the martyrdom of the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer—has received much attention. ...

But there is an even more basic theological point to be made. Even if we believe that God wants the contemporary nation of Israel to prosper in the land that was promised to her ancestors, evangelical Christians do Israel no favors by refusing to criticize what the Israelis are presently doing in the Middle East. No one cared more about the well-being of the Hebrew people than the prophets of ancient Israel. Yet those prophets regularly criticized Israel’s leaders for their corrupt practices. They minced no words when they were convinced that the people of Israel were guilty of injustice: “O Israel, return to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity” (Hosea 14: 1); “Woe to those who devise iniquity, and work out evil on their beds…[who] covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them” (Micah 2: 1-2). Why did they utter these harsh words? Because those prophets knew that God would never bless Israel unless that nation conformed to God’s standards of justice and righteousness.

I know that the present situation is an extremely complex one. I am deeply appalled by suicide bombers who destroy the lives of innocent Israelis. I certainly have no clear proposal that would solve the present crisis.

And on the issue of concreteprogress toward peace, this is a very bad development: Israeli plan for new West Bank homes angers Palestinians Ha'aretz (Israel) 03/21/05.

Israel plans to build 3,500 new homes in the West Bank to cement its hold on Jerusalem, government sources said on Monday, drawing a Palestinian warning that peace efforts were at risk. ...

The blueprint for two new neighborhoods linking the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim to East Jerusalem appeared to flout the U.S.-backed peace road map whose final vision is disputed by Israel and the Palestinians.

The road map requires a halt to settlement-building on land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and which Palestinians want as part of a future state. ...

"If this project is carried out that means shutting the door for negotiations and peace," he said. "This project intends to determine the future of Jerusalem by settlements and not negotiations."

"By expanding settlements in the West Bank, Israel gives the impression that it intends to exchange Gaza for a 'Greater Israel'," said Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan al-Khatib.

Bush and his administration are still going to have to choose between real prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, on the one hand, and those who support the Likud Party's settlement policies, especially the Christian Right Republicans, on the other.

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