Christian Zionists still uncertain about Trump — but know they’re glad Obama is out


WASHINGTON (JTA) – Barack Obama is gone and the relief among the Christian Zionists and their Jewish friends who peopled certain corners of Washington, D.C., this week was palpable.

Gary Bauer, the veteran evangelical activist, laid it out at the opening session of Christians United for Israel’s annual conference on Monday.

A year ago, “from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the next, we had people who were not blessing Israel, they were cursing Israel,” said Bauer, who was recently named director of CUFI’s Washington office.

Now, Bauer said to applause, Pastor John Hagee, CUFI’s founder, was able to attend White House meetings.

“J Street and their supporters like George Soros are out and CUFI and Pastor Hagee are in!” he said.

The audience let out a cheer, relishing the scathing references to the liberal Jewish Middle East lobby and the billionaire funder of liberal causes, including J Street.

Some 5,000 activists from across the country attended the 12th conference of the Christian Zionist group, which has over 3.5 million members. Members gathered to hear from top Jewish, Israeli and political leaders; lobby for legislation, including a measure that expands anti-boycott laws and another that cuts nearly all U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority unless it curtails incitement, and celebrate the new political climate in Washington.

Missing from the proceedings, though, was a full-throated endorsement, at least from the leadership, of the change agent: President Donald Trump.

On a panel Monday, Hagee voiced concerns about Trump’s commitment to the conservative group’s top priority, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

“Moving to Jerusalem would prove that our president stands by his word,” Hagee said.

Allen West, a former Republican congressman who is immensely popular in the conservative pro-Israel community, was blunt speaking on the same panel.

“If you have spoken about this and don’t follow through, then it’s a matter of credibility,” he said.

To be sure, the CUFI representatives were clear that they preferred Trump to Obama and specified why: Trump opposed the Iran nuclear deal that Obama negotiated, trading sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program (although Trump has yet to withdraw from it).

Trump is friendlier with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this was noted by speakers including Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein spoke on the panel with Hagee and West.

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is stronger than it was last year, more vibrant, more committed,” the Jewish leader said.

Speakers mentioned Pence as soon as they mentioned Trump, reassuring themselves that they had at least one true friend in the White House.

“I believe God Almighty has strategically placed Vice President Mike Pence at the side of President Trump,” said Erick Stakelbeck, who hosts a CUFI-affiliated TV show.

In describing a visit to the Oval Office earlier this year by the CUFI leadership, Stakelbeck barely touched on Trump, instead lavishing praise on Pence, a Catholic turned evangelical Christian who became one of the  country’s most socially conservative legislators and governors.

“There was no teleprompter,” Stakelbeck said of Pence. “I can tell you he spoke from the heart.”

Pence, the star speaker of the conference, was not subtle in drawing the contrast with the Obama administration.

“In President Trump, America once again has a leader who will stand with our allies and stand up to our enemies,” he said in his speech Monday. “And this president calls our enemies by their name.”

Pro-Israel groups to the left of CUFI would contest many of the assumptions underpinning the conference. They would note that Obama substantially increased security assistance to Israel and pursued the Iran deal because he believed it to be the only means to keep Iran free of nuclear weapons.

Hagee in a passing remark said that under Obama, America took in fewer Christian refugees from the Middle East — a myth popular among the former president’s critics. Nearly half of all the refugees taken in by the U.S. since 2013 are Christians, and Christian refugees were disproportionately represented among the Syrian refugees absorbed from that country’s civil war.

As he has in the past, Pence offered assurances that the U.S. Embassy in Israel would move to Jerusalem.

“I promise you that the day will come when President Donald Trump moves the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” he said. “It is not a question of if, it is only when.”

As Indiana governor and before that as a congressman, Pence had a long and intimate relationship with the pro-Israel community. His state was among the first to pass laws targeting the boycott Israel movement.

“For my part, like all of you, my passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith,” he said. “The songs of the land and the people of Israel were the anthems of my youth.”

Trump, by contrast, had few Israel affiliations before his presidential run, although he has always had plenty of Jews in his orbit, not least his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

At his first encounter as a candidate with a Jewish group, in December 2015, when he spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump said he would prefer to remain neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and would not commit to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Trump eventually adjusted his views on Israel to bring them mostly in line with the pro-Israel right, and enthusiasm for the president among the CUFI membership remains high. Hagee, launching the conference Monday morning, just had to mention Trump’s name to elicit huge cheers. Notably, however, Hagee also coupled Trump’s name with Pence.

“God has provided Israel with friends like President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who are standing by Israel’s side and determined to defeat every boycott of the Jewish state,” he said, repeating himself to be heard above the cheers.

Pastor Scott Thomas, who heads CUFI’s Florida operations, said Trump’s advent was a relief in and of itself.

“We’re very encouraged by the disappearance of daylight between the U.S. and Israel relations,” he told JTA in an interview, an allusion to Obama’s rejection of the concept of “no daylight” between the United States and Israel at the outset of his presidency. “We want to see that closer and we believe this Trump administration is bringing that. We love the affinity that we’ve seen witnessed between Trump and Netanyahu.”

CUFI remains ostensibly nonpartisan – there were no Democrats speaking at the conference, but they were invited, staff said.

But deference to bipartisanship, eagerly observed once upon a time, was treated almost as an amusing afterthought at this conference.

Quipped John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, “Unlike the last eight years — that’s sort of a random number – we don’t have bad state-to-state relations with the government of Israel anymore.”

(JTA Washington intern Giovanna Paz contributed to this report.)

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