- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2003

Israeli tourism minister Benyamin Elon has embarked on a “Bible Belt tour” to exploit evangelical Christian enthusiasm for Israel, to lure Christian tourists back to Israel and to derail President Bush’s “road map” to Middle East peace.

Mr. Elon visited in Memphis, at the juncture of Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, as his first stop.

Some evangelical Christian leaders say the “road map,” which they argue puts Israel at a disadvantage in the Middle East, must go if the president retains his Christian base in next year’s presidential elections.

“We either have to oppose the road map or oppose the Bible,” says Mike Evans, founder of the Jerusalem Prayer Team, a coalition of 1,700 churches. “Evangelicals have no debate on this issue.”

The first phase of the road map, agreed upon by Israeli and Palestinian leaders at a June 4 peace summit convened by Mr. Bush, envisions Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side; Israel would return land occupied since September 2000 and dismantle West Bank settlements built since March 2001, and Palestinians would cut ties to all terrorist groups, set up their own constitution and hold multiparty elections.

“Bible-believing Christians believe all that land belongs to Israel,” says Ed MacAteer, co-founder of Moral Majority and founder of the Religious Roundtable, an umbrella organization of several evangelical groups.

“It is a fatal, fatal mistake that George Bush is making,” he says with colloquial emphasis. “[President Bush] is probably the most powerful man in the world, but he ain’t more powerful than God. And God gave them that land. Every grain of sand on that piece of property belongs to the Jews because God gave it to [them].”

Mr. MacAteer is part of a coalition of Christians and Jews that has raised $70,000 to pay for 114 billboards urging Americans to call the White House to tell Mr. Bush not to violate “God’s covenant with Israel.”

The coalition, Americans for a Safe Israel, based in New York, is chaired by Herb Zweibon, a Jewish conservative who says the signs will be up for at least six months to apply “pressure on [presidential adviser Karl] Rove and company.” The Web site address is www.AFSI.org.

His group “recognized a long time ago that the key to Israel’s well-being would be with the Zionist Christian Right; those who believe in Scripture,” he says. “That’s where we are coming from.”

Thus Mr. Elon is averaging one trip per month to make Israeli views known in states where the Jewish state sees a receptive audience. “The Bible Belt is a very important target for Israel,” he says, adding that Israel is raising its annual tourism budget for North America from $1.1 million to $3 million.

“We wish to thank those who have not abandoned us,” he says. “In the past three years, those who have come were Jews — out of solidarity — and evangelical Christians. They are saying to [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat: ‘You cannot force us to change our way of life to uproot Israel from the Holy Land.’”

He opposes a Palestinian state on the West Bank and suggests Palestinians either relocate to Jordan or live under Israeli sovereignty.

“I really think the road map won’t work because we are doing the same mistakes of the Oslo Accords,” he says. “It’s just a question of time before everyone understands the road map is a road trap.”

To make sure Mr. Bush gets the message to preserve Israel’s biblical boundaries, several groups of pro-Israel Christians and Jews, including a “Battalion of Deborah,” planned 13 hours of demonstrations and marches yesterday in Crawford, Texas, where the president is spending much of August.

“Preserving the biblical territorial integrity of the state of Israel should be the cornerstone of President Bush’s road map to peace,” reads a statement, citing the account of Deborah saving the Israelites in the Bible’s Book of Judges, on www.battalionofdeborah.org. “No more land for peace and rewarding Islamic-jihad terrorism with PLO statehood.”

Mr. Zweibon argues that it is in Mr. Bush’s interest to listen to his Christian base.

“One year after the [2000] election, Karl Rove gave a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, saying they expected 19 million of the Christian Right to show up [for it]. Only 15 million did, so 4 million of those people did not vote. Well, tell me what President Bush has done for them since. Absolutely nothing. [The Bush administration has] been catering to the Muslim community.”

Gary Bauer, a candidate for president in 2000 and president of American Values, a think tank, is meeting with Mr. Elon.

“I think there is great skepticism among many conservative Christians about the road map,” he says. “Even though they love the president, there’s growing feeling we should stop holding Israel to a different standard than we hold ourselves to, especially regarding terrorists. When Israel gets attacked, the secretary of state tells Israel to restrain itself. But when we get attacked, we massively respond, as any democracy should.”

One issue dear to Christians is access to their holy sites, says Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition and one of the Christian leaders scheduled to meet with Mr. Elon. When she toured Israel last November, access to Bethlehem — the birthplace of Christ — and to the Temple Mount, where Christians believe He will return as Messiah, was forbidden because of the ongoing intifada.

“Christian support for Israel is very strong,” she says. “It’s not good for Israel that Christians cannot visit their holy sites, and I don’t think many Christians know this.”

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