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Playing the Jesus Card

Why is Netanyahu courting Christian fundamentalists?

Benjamin Netanyahu has a problem. The Obama administration is insisting on a settlements freeze, and the Israeli prime minister, who is resisting such demands, is not getting the support he might have expected from the U.S. pro-Israel community. Usually, when an American President makes any sort of demand on Jerusalem, pro-Israel (primarily Jewish) organizations compel Congress to pressure the president to cease and desist. It usually works. But not this time.

So what's an Israeli leader to do? Netanyahu is resurrecting a tried and true strategy: Call on Christian fundamentalists -- who see maintaining Israel's occupation as paramount -- to galvanize popular pressure against Obama. But just like the last time he played this trick, the tactic is unlikely to work magic for Bibi anytime soon.

For one thing, it's clear that Netanyahu is on shaky ground with the mainstream pro-Israel lobby on settlements. At the president's meeting with Jewish leaders at the White House on July 13, Obama heard virtually no criticism of his policy on settlements. Even the more conservative Jewish groups held their tongues. The only exception came when one participant urged the president not to change his policy but to keep his differences with Israel private, such that there would be "no daylight" visible between Israeli and American positions. Obama responded that past administrations did not have much success with that approach. "For eight years, there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished," he said.

There are numerous reasons why the Jewish community is not rushing to Netanyahu's defense. First, there has never been much support in the United States for West Bank settlements. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, has never taken a stand favoring settlements nor have most of the other mainstream pro-Israel organizations. The up-and-coming pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations like J Street and my employer, the Israel Policy Forum, oppose settlements and fully support the president's position.

On top of that, Netanyahu has never been a popular figure in the American Jewish community. His last tenure as prime minister was a failure; he was turned out of office in near-record time. Yet even in this brief stint, he managed to antagonize the United States. Remember, he came to office less than a year after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and moved quickly to undo the peace process. Not surprisingly, that led to a swift deterioration in relations between Netanyahu and then President Bill Clinton, who had cherished his relationship both with Rabin and the Oslo peace process.

Sensing the frost, and knowing that getting in Clinton's good graces would require endorsing Oslo, Netanyahu turned to the Republicans and to the Christian Zionists for support. There was nothing subtle about Netanyahu's embrace of the right. In fact, during the Monica Lewinsky crisis -- when he clearly believed Clinton was done for -- the media carried reports about Netanyahu joking with House Speaker Newt Gingrich over some of the more salacious details of the affair.

At about the same time that Netanyahu started cozying up to right-wing Republicans, the Israeli government intensified its efforts to court so-called Christian Zionists. These are fundamentalist Christians whose theology dictates unwavering support for the state of Israel.

Unlike most pro-Israel Jews, Christian Zionists emphatically support Israeli settlements and oppose the two-state solution. By no means liberal, they do not raise questions about Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They are, quite simply, Netanyahu's natural constituency -- far more natural than the Jewish community, which tends to be too dovish for Bibi's taste.

So, sure enough, Netanyahu was the man of the hour at this week's Christians United For Israel (CUFI) conference in Washington. The organization's founder, Pastor John Hagee, addressed Netanyahu -- who was in Israel -- by satellite, telling him that 50 million Christians support "Israel's sovereign right to grow and develop the settlements of Israel as you see fit and not yield to the pressure of the United States government."

Netanyahu expressed his gratitude. "Today millions of Christians stand with Israel because they stand for freedom, millions of Christians stand with Israel because they stand for truth, millions of Christians stand for Israel because they want to see genuine peace in the Holy Land," he said. The triumvirate of Netanyahu, Hagee, and Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov now plan to cement their alliance by conference call every three months.

It has all the makings of a zero sum game: Netanyahu and other right-wing Israelis hope that the support they gain from the Christian right can help make up for what they have lost among American liberals over the past several years.

It won't. Christian Zionists of the CUFI variety are hardcore Republicans. Their votes are never up for grabs in elections because they are owned by the GOP -- and not because of Israel. Right-wing Christians, including Christian Zionists, support Republicans for the party's stance on abortion, gays, taxes and a host of other conservative issues. Neither the Democrats (who will never get their votes or their campaign contributions) nor the Republicans (who will always get both) have any need to court them. So, loud and organized as they are, this subset of the American right is not a major political player.

On the Israel issue, the only domestic constituency that matters is the Jewish community and, thus far, it is supporting Obama -- not Netanyahu -- on the settlements issue and the peace process. That should be no surprise, given that most Jews are Democrats and 78 percent of them voted for Obama over McCain.

So long as that support holds, Obama has a free hand on Arab-Israeli affairs. And it will hold as long as the president's popularity remains high. If Obama's support declines --whether due to a failure on healthcare or anything else -- some of his Jewish support will erode too. And that would give Netanyahu the opening he wants to enlist the Jewish community in his effort to stop Obama's pressure on Israel.

In any case, it will be the Jews who make the difference, not Netanyahu's irrelevant fundamentalist Christian allies. Like most card tricks, this one is pretty easy to crack.

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

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