Despite his occasional criticism of Israeli government policies, televangelist Pat Robertson has been unwavering in his support for Israel, a fact Israel’s Tourism Ministry is capitalizing on as it rolls out its new campaign to counter a 40 percent drop in tourism following the war with Hezbollah.
Robertson, who hosts "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network, is prominently featured in the ministry’s television commercials calling on Christians to visit the Holy Land. The commercials (for which he was not paid) were made about a year ago, before Israel declared Robertson persona non-grata in January for suggesting that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was God’s retribution for Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Asked at a news conference about the use of the Robertson commercials in the new advertising campaign, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s tourism minister, said simply, "He apologized."
It was later learned that Robertson met with Herzog in Israel during the 34-day war with Hezbollah that ended last month and apologized for his remarks.
"It was a private meeting" in Jerusalem, said Herzog’s chief of staff, Michal Chomski. "He came for a solidarity trip during the war."
Herzog said later that at the time Robertson made his comments critical of Sharon, "he was vehemently criticized by the former Tourism Minister, Avraham Hirschson. In the meantime, he has apologized and they mended fences."
He said that during his meeting with Robertson, the evangelist again apologized and said his criticism "wasn’t intentional." "It wasn’t the right remark," Herzog said.
Robertson could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman said the evangelist has apologized in the past but had not repeated the apology during his last trip to Israel.
"We at the Ministry of Tourism have strong ties with the Christian evangelical community and with other Christian communities around the United States," Herzog told The Jewish Week. "They are a major source of incoming tourists to Israel, and we view this as important to Israel. In this respect, we’ve met with many leaders, pastors from the Pentecostal and other denominations, and of course, from the evangelical community."
To convince the Christian community to come, Herzog said "pastors need to be comforted and told that the situation is calm and safe."
He pointed out that when Robertson visited Israel during the Hezbollah war, he broadcasted live from Metullah in northern Israel while Israeli artillery fire could be heard in the background. He told his audience that Hezbollah Katyusha rockets occasionally flew over his head.
During an interview he later gave in Haifa, Robertson said: "I’m here, among other things, to tell your people that the evangelical Christians of America are with you; we’re praying for you."
The Ministry of Tourism had forecast 2.7 million tourists this year. But after the war broke out July 12 following a cross-border raid by Hezbollah in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and eight others killed, tourists cancelled or postponed their visits. Herzog said that as a result, only about 1.5 million tourists have visited Israel this year. He said it was hoped that the advertising campaign and other projects would increase that figure to 1.9 million tourists by the end of the year.
The ministry expects to spend about $8 million from now until the end of the year on a major advertising campaign concentrated in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Another $20 million has been budgeted for next year but Herzog said the figure might be increased to $30 million. And he noted that the tourist industry is pumping another $20 million into generating tourists.
"We have joined forces with all major Jewish organizations to try to get pledges to send groups to Israel," he said, adding that a special push is being made during the High Holy Days.
The Ministry of Tourism is using its previous slogan, "Who Knew," to tell prospective tourists about all of the attractions Israel has to offer. It is also using the phrase, "It’s happening now in Israel." Among the areas highlighted in the campaign are the health benefits of the Dead Sea, archeological exploration and the fact that Israel has accommodations for disabled visitors.
Once it might have taken months for the tourist industry to recover, but Herzog said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have made people realize that "what can happen in Israel can happen anywhere."