News Analysis: Netanyahu cozies up to Falwell, Gingrich

WASHINGTON — Facing shaky support in the American Jewish community, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington this week looking for evangelical Christians and conservative Republicans to carry his tattered banner.

The embattled prime minister hoped that a vigorous, narrowly focused public strategy would help offset growing frustration with his policies in the Clinton administration. His advance team sought to create photo ops with cheering supporters in anticipation of the long faces and the high-level leaks they expected would paint a negative picture of the official summit on Tuesday.

But that strategy, while producing a short-term media bounce, is unlikely to avert new friction as the policies of Washington and Jerusalem diverge.

More importantly, it reflects Netanyahu's inherent weakness in his dealings with Washington, and it puts a strong new emphasis on friends whose motives for supporting Israel may be questionable.

On top of that, Netanyahu's strategy produced rumbles of discontent among Jewish leaders.

"It was curious that he began with outreach to a coalition of people who are not only antagonistic to his host, the president, but also to a majority of the Jewish community," said Abraham Foxman, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League. "Reaching out to these people is nothing new for Likud prime ministers, but it's curious that he would do it at this time, especially since relations between the two governments are so sensitive. It's like poking a finger in the administration's eye."

Other Jewish leaders were less charitable.

"He was blatant about the fact that this trip had less to do with diplomacy than public relations," said a 20-year veteran of the pro-Israel wars. "For him to meet with [House Speaker Newt] Gingrich and [evangelist Jerry] Falwell before he met with the president — and for him to choose to make his initial speech to a group that continues to bitterly attack Clinton — was a virtual declaration of war."

A pro-Israel lobbyist called Netanyahu's twin focus on evangelical and GOP critics of the administration "the result of some very bad advice that he no longer needs mainstream American Jews."

Netanyahu's first stop in Washington was Monday's rally by the National Unity Coalition for Israel. The group describes itself as a coalition of Christian and Jewish groups, but in reality it is comprised largely of conservative Christians who are among Netanyahu's most enthusiastic U.S. backers.

The Israeli leader also met with televangelists Pat Robertson and Falwell, who have been unstinting in their support for his hardline policies.

Netanyahu's reception — as the prime minister's office had planned — was rousing; he was truly among friends.

But it's important to look at the nature of that friendship, which is based heavily on a prophetic theology in which the revival of the Jewish state in 1948 was a critical milestone. According to most millennialists, that event triggered a countdown that will end with the "rapture" of the church and "the return of Jesus Christ" — the details vary among evangelicals but the result is the same.

What happens to Israel during that period? Nothing good, that's for sure: The Jewish state will be at war with its neighbors, and eventually invaded and ravaged in the final battle of Armageddon.

According to most of those schemes, efforts will be made to bring peace to the region but they are doomed to fail. A unified Jerusalem plays an important role in these events.

"We believe that Jews will take their rightful place in the nation of Israel, that the whole land will be given back to them — and that's where Christ will set up his eternal kingdom, in the city of Jerusalem," said Dwight Parrish, director of the Ralph Sexton Ministries in North Carolina and a member of the event's host committee.

Jews, he said, will remain Jews, adding that "I look at myself as an adopted Jew or a righteous gentile."

Will these Jews who "remain Jews" become believers in Jesus?

"I believe so," he said, "once they realize that Christ was the redeemer."

That isn't the official position of the National Unity Coalition for Israel, which is run by a longtime Jewish pro-Israel activist and includes a significant number of Orthodox Jews. But it is common doctrine among many of the evangelical groups that have rallied to Netanyahu's defense.

A core idea of those groups is that peace in the Middle East is impossible until what they call the "second coming" of Jesus — indeed, that peacemaking efforts are inherently deceptive. So is it any wonder they feel more comfortable with Netanyahu than with his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who were driven by a vision that enduring peace was at least a possibility?

Netanyahu's turn to the evangelicals also may exacerbate his problem with middle-of-the-road American Jews, who generally regard the Christian right as adversaries despite their commitment to Israel.

The second element of Netanyahu's strategy involved GOP conservatives in Congress.

The prime minister had originally tried to postpone the Washington summit because Congress was out of session. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, officials in Jerusalem felt, would provide important protection against a public squeeze by the administration and enable Netanyahu to go home and say that U.S. support is as strong as ever.

But by stressing his alliance with some of the administration's fiercest critics, Netanyahu steered the pro-Israel effort — traditionally and obsessively bipartisan — in the direction of the partisan wars.

"There's nothing wrong with seeking Republican support; in fact, it's smart," said the leader of a major pro-Israel organization Monday. "Some of the Republicans have become very good friends. The danger is that others are enthusiastic about the prime minister primarily because it gives them more weapons to use against the administration. His congressional strategy this week set a very confrontational and partisan tone, which is unfortunate, because this is an administration that has been very friendly to Israel."

The new conservative pro-Israel enthusiasts have never been put to the test by politically costly votes on foreign aid or blocking arms sales to Arab countries, this official added.

How much of the support of people like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is based on a genuine commitment to the Jewish state, and how much is based on their desire for new weapons in their partisan battles against a despised president?

For that matter, how much of the support of the Christian fundamentalists is based on real love for the Jewish people, and how much is based on their belief that Jews will be essential cannon fodder for their apocalypse?

While Netanyahu met with fundamentalists, demonstrators and counter-demonstrators outside Washington's Mayflower Hotel offered the prime minister their advice.

Anti-peace process demonstrators and marchers demanded that Israel return no more territory to the Palestinians. As a visual aid, anti-Oslo demonstrators brought a live sheep, arguing that territorial concessions would prepare Israel for the slaughter.

On the other side, members of the Jewish Peace Lobby passed out fliers calling for tough new steps by the administration to push for compliance by both the Israelis and the Palestinians — including a cutoff of aid if they don't live up to their obligations.

Feelings on both sides of a West Bank withdrawal resulted in a sudden increase in ad revenue for major newspapers as groups — including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Israel Policy Forum — bought ads greeting the prime minister and expressing the views of their members. The Conference of Presidents ad focused on Israel's 50th anniversary — the only Mideast issue that groups ranging from Americans for Peace Now to the Zionist Organization of America could agree on.

The Washington Times also ran an ad by the Coalition for True Peace in the Middle East — a previously unknown group with no mailing address — with a crude, derogatory caricature of Arafat and Clinton, unshaven and wearing a duplicate of Arafat's headdress.

"Two of a kind: Yasser and Bill," the caption read.

Jewish leaders were quick to label the ad blatant racism.

"It's hard to find the adjectives to comment on something this ugly and unfair," said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.