WASHINGTON – An increasingly close alliance between the powerful pro-Israel Jewish lobby and fundamentalist Christians has been warning President Bush against withdrawing support from Israel and ceding too much to the Palestinians in his peace-building efforts.
"I think people have said there is a perception — and I think there is one — that Israel is being pressured to make dangerous concessions," said Gary Bauer (search), head of American Values, a Christian conservative activist group that has come out strongly in favor of pro-Israeli causes.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (search) recently launched the Stand for Israel advocacy group with Christian conservative Ralph Reed (search). He cautioned that Jews considering a shift to the Republican Party based on previous support of Bush's policies "could change in a heartbeat."
Eckstein, 20-year head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, also warned about Bush's Christian base.
"If the evangelical community feels that President Bush is inordinately asking Israel for compromise, or blaming Israel for the violence, I think you will have a backlash from that base," he said.
Bush, who has been guiding the latest attempt at peace — a "road map" that envisions a Palestinian state by 2005 — rebuked Israel this week for retaliating against a guerrilla attack last Sunday that killed five Israeli soldiers.
On Tuesday, Israel struck back with a botched assassination attempt on a leader of the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas. The bloodshed escalated the following day when Hamas sent a homicide bomber onto a Jerusalem bus, killing 17 and injuring more than 100.
On Thursday, Israel successfully killed two other Hamas leaders, but also ended up killing and injuring several others, among them one Hamas member's wife and young daughter. The Israeli military has apologized for those deaths.
Two more helicopter strikes against the Hamas leadership in Gaza took place Friday, killing a member of the group's military wing and wounding dozens of others.
Critics of the alliance between American Jews and Christian conservatives say they are worried that the partnership is generating too much influence on Capitol Hill and could drown out the Palestinian perspective.
"The political agenda, combined with the religious agenda — you have this killer, killer combination against world peace," charged Faiz Rehmanen, a spokesman for the American Muslim Council (search). "We won't be able to match those resources and efforts."
"These lobbying organizations — both Christian and Jewish and others — set back the cause and prolong it, and it is going to fuel more international terrorism without question," said Don Wagner, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at North Park University in Chicago.
Wagner said if Bush comes out too strongly in favor of Israel, the United States will not be perceived as an honest mediator in the peace process.
Bauer said Christian support for Israel lies in both religions' common interest in fulfilling God's covenant with the Jewish people as described in the Bible — that the land that is now Israel was promised to them.
The Christians refute characterizations that their support is based on an apocalyptic prophecy that says the second coming of Christ will see a conversion of Jews to Christianity and usher in the end of the world.
Critics have pointed to this "end times" scenario as a "creepy" basis of support for Israel by evangelical Christians.
"It's pretty terrifying," said Jean Abinader, managing director of the Arab American Institute (search). He said Christian and Jews are using each other to forward both theological and political missions, and worries about the influence of the more radical elements of the pro-Israel lobby.
"We are concerned about the present position of American interests in the region because people are literally interpreting scripture as a basis of foreign policy rather than what's best for the country," he added. "Anytime you apply theology to politics, it's very counter-productive."
Kate O'Beirne, Washington editor of National Review, responded that the apocalypse prophecy is often cited by detractors who want to discredit the pro-Israel lobby by assigning "dark motives" to its Christian supporters.
"Rather than tackling the issue on its merits, people want to attribute dark motives inspired by the Bible — horror of horrors — to this mission," she said.
O'Beirne said Christian conservative support is consistent with widespread American support for Israel and the recognition that the United States is fighting a war against terrorism that resembles Israel's predicament.
Not all Christians want to be considered supporters of Israeli policy. Corrine Whitlatch, executive director for the Churches for Middle East Peace, said plenty of mainline Protestant churches decry their conservative brethren's unbridled support for Israel.
"It is their application [of the Bible] to public policy that we feel creates a situation where one needs to take responsibility and say, 'This is just wrong,'" Whitlatch said, adding that both sides in the Mideast fight must be urged to end the violence. "We're reclaiming the name of Christianity and asserting the commitment toward peacemaking."