Beilin rejects Israel visit by Christian Coalition head

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin's decision to block an official invitation of Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed to Israel is being criticized by pro-Israel activists as "a serious misjudgment" and "a huge mistake."

The invitation, backed by a wide array of Jewish groups and the Israeli embassy in Washington, was hatched by conservatives interested in bridging the gap between the hawkish pro-Likud evangelicals — and their conservative GOP allies in Congress — and the Rabin government. Reed is quite influential in the new GOP-controlled Congress.

Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich was won over to the idea after sharing a Friday evening Shabbat dinner last January with the Christian Coalition leader at the home of Marshal Breger.

Breger, a former Jewish liaison in the Reagan White House who served as a top official in the Bush labor department, is currently at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The idea won the backing not only of embassy officials but of liberals and pro-peace activists from Americans for Peace Now, who lobbied Beilin to no avail.

Israeli officials say Beilin reversed himself, having at first leaned toward agreeing to the proposal. "It won't serve his agenda," said a diplomat familiar with Beilin's thinking. "He sees Reed as a lost cause, a Likud asset" who will embarrass the government with hawkish statements after being taken to the Golan and the West Bank.

Beilin said his decision stemmed from American, not Israeli, concerns. On Monday, June 12, he was quoted in Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, as saying he would not invite Reed because he "represents a grave phenomenon of the American right."

Beilin's veto received low marks from the broad array of Jewish groups and leaders who supported the invitation after being canvassed by the embassy.

"While I find myself agreeing with Yossi Beilin on virtually everything, I believe he's made a serious misjudgment in his view on Ralph Reed's visit," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center.

"If we have any serious hope of transforming the religious right's amorphous theological support into concrete political support for Israel's foreign aid package, visits like this are indispensable."

At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference in May, Saperstein challenged Reed to go public and take his support for foreign aid to Israel out of the closet — a challenge Reed accepted. Beilin's decision is "wrong, unproductive, unwise," says Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, whose group has attacked the Christian Right and met with Reed over the past year.

This is at least the second time that Beilin has leaped into domestic U.S. politics. In 1994, he appeared to endorse the nomination of Strobe Talbott as number three in the State Department, a move vigorously opposed by right-wing pro-Israel circles and political conservatives.

Reed has had his hands full with the Jewish community since the Anti-Defamation League report on the Christian Right, issued last summer, and more recent revelations about the historical conspiracy theories endorsed by coalition founder Pat Robertson. To calm the waters, he has appeared before leadership forums of the ADL, American Jewish Committee and AIPAC's annual policy conference.

In these meetings, he has denounced anti-Semitism, embraced pluralism and church/state separation and endorsed a laundry list of pro-Israel positions.

When a prominent group of Christian clergy wrote President Bill Clinton to express opposition to Israeli control over united Jerusalem, Reed wrote congressional leaders, distancing his group from the first and supporting the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Reed may not become an advocate of Rabin's peace policies, say those who think he should get an invitation, but that doesn't mean he has to be regarded as an enemy.

For one, Reed has refrained from backing the hawkish stands taken by other Christian Zionists and their Jewish allies, say Jewish community insiders who have maintained contacts with him.

"His personal opinions are that the PLO should not get aid, that Israel should not give up the Golan Heights and that the U.S. should not commit troops there," said a senior pro-Israel movement official who has had extensive contact with Reed.

"In a heartbeat he could go after Golan troops and PLO funding, but he has made a conscious decision not to do so."

Now, "Israel is trying to figure the new realities in Washington," said the official. "Ralph Reed is a part of the new reality. Not inviting him is a huge mistake."