In an effort to solidify its relationship with American evangelicals, the government of Israel has launched initiatives that include expense-paid trips to the Holy Land and strategy sessions with the Christian Coalition and other conservative groups.
The objectives: to revive Israel's sagging tourism industry and strengthen grass-roots support in the United States. The target audience is the estimated 98 million U.S. evangelicals, but especially a subset of that group, Christian Zionists.
That group believes that Jews are God's chosen people and have a divine deed to their contested land, in accordance with a covenant described in the first book of the Bible.
But Christian Zionism is about more than private belief. Its "anything for Israel" theology has the potential to affect U.S. foreign policy in the same way that the Christian right has influenced domestic issues through political pressure.
"If I felt the administration or anyone in Congress was moving away from support of Israel, believe me, I'd encourage people to pick up the phone and tell their legislators, 'Don't you dare!' " said Janet Parshall, who hosts a weekday syndicated show on evangelical radio stations across the country.
One intriguing question, posed frequently in Israeli government and U.S. evangelical circles, is whether President Bush, who has been outspoken in his evangelical beliefs, privately holds Christian Zionist views.
"It's one of the common explanations [of] . . . why and how Bush is sympathetic to Israel and its cause," said Moshe Fox, minister for public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. "I haven't had a chance to talk to the president about this, but that view is out there, and it is quite common."
White House spokesman Ken Lisaius would not comment on whether Bush's religious beliefs might affect his actions toward Israel. "The president makes policy decisions based on policy factors," Lisaius said.
It is clear, however, that Israel considers U.S. evangelicals a vital constituency.
"Are we increasing our efforts this year? Yes," said Rami Levi, Israel's New York City-based tourism commissioner for North America.
"But we've been increasing our efforts for many years. What we know is evangelicals are very supportive of Israel. They see all of Israel -- not just our tourism, but our economy, our national interest -- as a love. It's their spiritual belief that that is the way it has to be. We can always rely on them."
The number of visitors to Israel plunged 55 percent in 2001, compared with the previous, record-breaking year, according to the Jerusalem Post. The drop is blamed on fear of terrorism and other violence.
In a marketing plan dated last month, TouchPoint Solutions, a Colorado Springs consulting agency hired by Israel's Ministry of Tourism, describes how to reverse that trend by appealing to U.S. evangelicals. Highlights include:
? Persuading the top 30 evangelical Zionists, through face-to-face meetings, to visit and promote Israel. Those named in a separate TouchPoint document, "Who are the Christian Zionists?" include religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, Texas pastor John Hagee, best-selling author Tim LaHaye and Parshall.
? Sending a letter to the 100,000 largest evangelical churches and a postcard to 350,000 others, directing them to Israel's tourism Web site, GoIsrael.com.
? Conducting "Israel Solidarity Days" in 100 cities, beginning with Colorado Springs, from Feb. 24 to March 1. Publicly, prayer ceremonies will focus on Israel and its biblical importance. Privately, local evangelical leaders -- whether pastors, business people or athletes -- will be urged to make "solidarity trips" to Israel. Some will have their expenses paid by Israel.
"The idea is to sell the sellers," TouchPoint President Butch Maltby said, adding that the multimillion-dollar marketing plan has been agreed upon in principle, with certain aspects dependent on funding by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Maltby described tourism as more than an economic matter. "It's also a political tool. Every person that comes to Israel becomes an ambassador to Israel. Every tourist becomes a public relations person."
The blurring of the lines between piety, politics and public relations was evident at a Jan. 8 meeting at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Two representatives from the Christian Coalition were among 18 evangelical leaders attending.
Each participant received "Why Christians Should Support Israel," by Richard Booker, a Texas-based Christian minister. The booklet quotes Genesis 17:7-8 in its argument that God made an eternal covenant in which he gave "the land in which you are a stranger," modern-day Israel, to Abraham and his descendants.
Jews and Muslims both see Abraham as their patriarch. But Christian Zionists contend that Muslims don't share in the promise of land because they are the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and his maidservant, Hagar. Ishmael was not part of the "everlasting covenant" with God and inherited no land.
Jews are seen as the descendants of Isaac, the son of Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Isaac did inherit property. So only Jews are regarded as holding a rightful claim to the land that has been a source of international conflict since Israel became a state in 1948, Christian Zionists say.
The embassy called the gathering the first "American-Christian grass-roots networks briefing and strategy discussion." Plans call for similar discussions monthly.
During the meeting, Shari Dollinger, the embassy's officer for interreligious affairs, led a discussion of how Christian college students could lead pro-Israel events on campus. She said she also sees Israel reaching out more than ever in the United States.
"There's a new realization that we can activate the Christian grass roots," she said.
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