Crowded GOP field vies for the Christian Zionist vote as Israel's rightward shift spurs protests

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Holding U.S. and Israeli flags, a crowd of largely Evangelical Christians pray during the Christians United For Israel (CUFI) "Night to Honor Israel" during the CUFI Summit 2023, Monday, July 17, 2023, in Arlington, Va., at the Crystal Gateway Marriott. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

ARLINGTON, Va. – When John McCain was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, he was forced to reject megachurch pastor John Hagee’s endorsement after a sermon surfaced that was derided as antisemitic.

But as the 2024 campaign for the White House intensifies, Hagee and his organization, Christians United for Israel, are welcome presences within the GOP.

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Hagee and CUFI hosted several presidential contenders at their annual summit in suburban Washington this week, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence. They all pledged fierce loyalty to Israel and were unified in criticizing President Joe Biden as weak.

The event — and Hagee’s prominent role in it — was a reminder of how the GOP’s further embrace of Christian Zionism has been evolving from the fringe to the mainstream for years, especially after Donald Trump’s presidency reshaped the modus operandi of Republican politics.

CUFI's annual summit has become a regular stop for Republicans wishing to showcase their pro-Israel and conservative Christian bona fides to the mostly white evangelical audience.

As Israel experiences a tumultuous rightward shift, support for its government has become key in courting the white evangelical Republican base, many of whom believe the state of Israel and its Jewish people fulfill biblical prophecy.

Former President Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, was not in attendance. According to CUFI, Trump was not invited to this year’s summit, though he has been in the past.

While in office, Trump offered policies that were popular among American Christian Zionists and Israeli religious-nationalists, including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and supporting Jewish settlements in occupied territories to the detriment of Palestinian hopes for statehood.

On his Truth Social platform last year, Trump wrote, “No President has done more for Israel than I have. Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.”

Most American Jews remain staunch Democratic voters and critical of the former president, including his ties to extremists. Amid rising antisemitism, Trump hosted a dinner at Mar-a-Lago last fall with two outspoken antisemites.

The partisan rift has extended to Israel — with Republicans holding far more favorable views of the country than Democrats, according to opinion polls.

Other GOP candidates have been laying the groundwork to be the Christian Zionist choice in 2024. Senator Tim Scott, who has spoken at previous CUFI summits but did not this year, has pushed measures against antisemitism in Congress.

DeSantis made a repeat visit to Jerusalem in April to speak and meet with Israeli leaders. “The Bible comes to life when you’re in Israel,” he told the 1,200 attendees at this year’s CUFI summit on Monday

DeSantis noted his work while in Congress to relocate the U.S. embassy. Hagee told attendees he met DeSantis for the first time when it opened in 2018.

Pence and Haley, who both headlined the summit, tout their records on Israel under the Trump administration in which they served. They have highlighted their pro-Israel policies while carefully distancing themselves from Trump, whose name Haley avoided in her CUFI speech and Pence mentioned only briefly in reference to the “most pro-Israel administration” in American history.

They also have cultivated ties with Hagee for years and been regulars at CUFI events. Pence made an appearance at Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio in January. Haley invited Hagee to give the opening prayer at her presidential campaign launch in February.

In 2008, McCain courted Hagee’s support but faced criticism over the pastor’s anti-Catholic and anti-LGBTQ statements. The final straw was audio that McCain called “crazy and unacceptable” in which Hagee described Hitler as a hunter sent by God to get Jewish people “to come back to the land of Israel.”

“Republican politics have changed dramatically since 2008 so the boundaries of what gets one disqualified from the conversation are way looser,” said Daniel Hummel, author of “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S.-Israeli Relations,” in an email to The Associated Press. “More to the point, CUFI has close to 20 years of demonstrated effectiveness in DC, and claims 10 million-plus members, which I’m sure the candidates understand as politically useful.”

This year’s CUFI event comes as widespread protests have engulfed Israel, and tens of thousands of protesters have been on the streets to push back against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government. At stake is Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the country’s judiciary, which critics say would do away with important checks on the prime minister’s power and push the country toward authoritarianism.

The proposal has also alienated allies overseas. President Joe Biden said in March that he hopes Netanyahu “walks away” from the judicial overhaul: “They cannot continue down this road.”

Most Republicans have remained unwavering in their support of Netanyahu’s government.

“Joe Biden needs to stay out of Israel’s business,” Haley told the CUFI crowd.

Just this week, Biden invited Netanyahu to meet with him in the U.S. in the fall — a delay for the traditional visit that would have followed Netanyahu's December election. At the CUFI event, DeSantis called Biden’s treatment of Netanyahu “disgraceful.”

Biden is hosting Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the White House this week during the state of Israel’s 75th anniversary. Herzog is scheduled to speak to a joint session of Congress the day after the CUFI summit ends.

Some progressive Democrats, including Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have said they will not attend. Pence labeled them and their criticisms of Israel as antisemitic at CUFI: “The words by these congresswomen are a disgrace.”

“The problem with CUFI is their understanding of supporting Israel is to back up a right-wing government and back up the occupation — that’s not in the best interest of the long-term sustainability of Israel,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the CEO of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization based in the U.S.

Jacobs added, “They see Jews as necessary props in their Christian messianic vision. That’s certainly not being pro-Israel or pro-Jewish.”

One of the main criticisms of Christian Zionism is that it’s predicated on a self-serving theological belief — that Israel and its Jews are needed for the end times to occur and a Christian messiah to return. CUFI downplays this apocalyptic strand of its movement, even as Hagee’s own books focus on the end times.

“As a Jew, that doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all,” said Josh Reinstein, the Jerusalem-based president of the Israel Allies Foundation. “I don’t believe in Christianity. I don’t believe the messiah is coming for the second time. Let’s just focus on what we agree on until the messiah comes and then we’ll decide what happens.”

Reinstein’s organization works to boost ties with pro-Israel politicians around the world, many of them evangelicals. He says faith-based outreach to Christians is “the most important weapon Israel has in its diplomatic arsenal.”

“These are people who are tried and true friends and allies who have shown time and time again that they’re standing with Israel," Reinstein said. "And I think that Israel has a duty to put their hands out in friendship as well.”

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