Christian Group Warns U.S. Against Pressuring Israel on Peace Deal

Editor's Note: The following is the second in a two-part series on Christians United for Israel and the evangelical movement's outlook on U.S. Middle East policy.

Diplomacy is back in fashion in the Middle East as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair tries his hand at bringing Israel and the Palestinians to a two-state solution of peaceful neighbors.

But Mideast talks are taking another form back in the United States. An unexpected voice from right field is warning U.S. negotiators not to be so quick to give away the farm, literally.

"I don't believe Israel should give up any piece of their land. I think they've given up too much of their land," said Michelle Stephens, one of 50 million Evangelicals who are said to be "waking up" to the idea that Israel's existence is integrally tied to their own religious outlook.

"Would somebody else, another country, coming in to America say, 'You need to give up Florida'? I live in Southern California, 'You need to give up San Diego to Mexico.' That's not going to happen. Why should we do that with Israel?" Stephens asked.

Stephens, 37, traveled with her husband cross-country to Washington, D.C., last week to join nearly 5,000 like-minded Evangelicals attending a conference called Christians United for Israel. Pastor Greg Stephens, who leads Father's House Church in El Cajon, Calif., said the group isn't interested in telling Israel what to do, but it sure has got some choice words for President Bush and Congress.

"Our personal position: don't give away a square inch. ... The Israeli government is a sovereign nation and what they choose to do concerning land for peace, they have the right to do. ... They are a sovereign nation we respect that," he said. On the other hand, as far as the U.S. Congress is concerned, "I will pressure my congressman. (If) my congressman is encouraging it, I am telling him, 'It's your last term.' My guys, oh, I am on my guys."

While strong supporters of Israel may take comfort in the headstrong backing, Rafi Dajani of the American Task Force on Palestine said the problem with Stephens' position is in "its very essence it doesn't allow or recognize any Palestinian claim to land."

"The people that still don't recognize the land is occupied ... are a minority on both sides," said Dajani, whose group advocates a Palestine and Israel living peacefully side-by-side. "That interpretation is not accepted by anybody in the international community, and most ironic, it's a position that runs counter to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian interests and consensus across the board. Those who still don't believe in that are not part of mainstream discourse even though they can bring together 5,000 people."

Dajani's point doesn't move members of CUFI, whose unshakable support for Israel belies its two years in existence. The inflexibility could come from 2,000 years of shared ancestry between Christians and Jews, or it could be a byproduct of CUFI's indefatigable founder, Pastor John Hagee. Hagee, head of the 19,000-strong Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, started leading Evangelicals toward support for Israel 26 years ago.

"In 1981, remember when the IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces) bombed the nuclear reactor in Iraq. The American press was very vitriolic against Israel, called it 'gunboat diplomacy' and a lot of other very unkind and unreasonable things. I felt that Israel had done the world a favor by removing nuclear weapons from the hands of a political madman, Saddam Hussein. And I think history supports that conclusion," Hagee told in a one-on-one interview at the start of the three-day CUFI conference.

Hagee, a rotund, bespectacled, silver-haired man spoke in a quiet, long Texas drawl as he described how he first approached local Jewish leaders in 1981 to promote a communal assembly of Jews and Christians.

Things moved slowly along but after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in February 2006 that he wanted to wipe Israel from the map, Hagee mobilized, bringing together 400 evangelical leaders from business, media, academia and the ministry to form CUFI.

Christian Right ... and Left

CUFI's talking points for the U.S. government are steeped in national security and Zionistic aspirations: Don't pressure Israel to give up any more land for peace, don't divvy up Jerusalem, move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, take out Hezbollah, stop Iran's nuclear pursuits and don't cut and run prematurely from Iraq.

"If we leave Iraq, Iran will fill that vacuum. Iran will have 40 percent of the oil of the Middle East with which to develop more terrorism, more nuclear weapons. They will certainly be a greater threat to Israel and I believe that they will transport terrorism to the United States of America, and those nuclear suitcase bombs will be going off in America," Hagee said.

"Israel is the only democracy that is in the Middle East, and we're spending millions and trillions of dollars to make Iraq free. Well, Israel is already free so we need to help them," said Pastor Caroline Aycock of Texas.

While tough talking on national security issues, members of CUFI insist they are nonpartisan and that security for Israel and the U.S. goes beyond party lines.

"We are not red-blue, blue-red. We are red, white and blue, and if you love Israel, if you love the United States, we're with you," Stephens said.

"This really crosses the Republican and Democrat line," added Julie Wineinger, a registered nurse from Davis, Calif., who attended the CUFI conference with her daughter. "We're really serious about this, really passionate about it. You know, enough to spend the money to come and be here and take our time to do this."

Lobbyists from California said they were received warmly in the offices of Republican Reps. Brian Bilbray, Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter as well as Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Susan Davis and Doris Matsui. Even an aide in the office representing the district held by the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald spoke with the lobbyists.

CUFI members from around the country also met with senators, including California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who received a standing ovation from CUFI's Texas delegation.

The California lobbyists dimly noted that among the lawmakers who did not speak with them were Democrats Reps. Loretta Sanchez and Mike Thompson of California and Rep. Jane Harman, a well-known supporter of Israel in Congress. A spokeswoman for Sanchez said a conflict in scheduling prevented her from meeting with the group. Harman and Thompson's staffs did not return calls for comment.

"I would point out that we met with only one Democrat and that was Dennis Moore," said John Powers, a 76-year-old retired fire equipment business owner, who lobbied Kansas lawmakers with about eight other fellow Kansans. "I saw very little partisanship represented as measured by what might be a difference between his views and the views of a Republican congressman. They seem to be of like minds."

Powers said Moore at first "got the impression that we were suggesting initiating hostilities (with Iran) which we were not and that got corrected. ... With him, war is a last resort, and I think that's really the way we feel as well."

Moore spokeswoman Rebecca Black said the congressman makes it a point to meet with all constituents from his state who request to see him in Washington. As for Iran policy, she said Moore prefers the diplomatic track.

"The congressman always believes that we should be doing things focusing on sanctions on diplomacy, international coalitions before we ever consider military actions," Black said. "I don't know that the congressman ever takes any options off the table but certainly his preference would be for this diplomatic effort."

War isn't totally off the table for CUFI, however, if it comes down to protecting Israel, Powers and Greg Stephens agreed.

"If that became a necessity, if that became a judgment of our leaders, our national leaders, in their judgment, that was the best approach, I don't think there's anything in our Christian belief that says we can't exercise that option," Powers said.

"We are not warmongers, but the bible tells us there is a time for war and there is a time for peace. So once again, what do we do but go right back to our scriptural principles. We were attacked. Israel is attacked every day. We have a right to defend ourselves," Greg Stephens added.