Thousands of evangelical Christians descended on Washington this week for the seventh annual Christians United for Israel ("CUFI") conference. Their goal: defend America and bless Israel.
Efforts to forge peace in the Middle East have dominated United States foreign policy for more than two decades, with every president since George H.W. Bush wading into the same treacherous waters and failing to broker a permanent solution to the crisis. Yet even with contentious disagreements on a dauntingly wide range of issues, everyone including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agrees on one thing: the goal of forging a two-state solution.
Everyone, except for millions of America's most influential voters.
More than one-in-four Americans self-identify as evangelical Christian. Conservatives court their political support. Liberals study their political resolve. George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter took office as born-again Christians. Pastor Rick Warren delivered Barack Obama's inaugural invocation. Every president since Lyndon Johnson has prayed with Billy Graham.
As one of the most strident voting blocs in American politics, evangelicals have shaped some of the country's most controversial domestic policy debates, from abortion to gay rights.
A growing coalition within the larger evangelical movement has also begun to quietly shape a much different debate involving the future of Israel. These self-described Christian Zionists present a quandary for those hoping for a two-state solution, since Christian Zionists believe the Bible altogether precludes the formation of two states.
This stance puts them at odds with the official positions of the Israeli government and Palestinian authorities, as well as the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union. Nevertheless, Christian Zionists have evolved into a powerful constituency in the United States.
Here's their basic theology: God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants -- the Jewish people -- to give them the Land of Canaan, also known as Israel. Before the Second Coming of Christ, God brings Jewish people scattered around the world back to Israel. Those who return do not recognize Jesus as Messiah, the fundamental tenet of Christianity, but God begins to convert a chosen few. Israel becomes a fruitful nation and then the world rises against it in war. When the dust settles, Christ's faithful welcome the Second Coming and Christ rules them in peace from Jerusalem.
For the Jewish community, this theology presents one major problem: to gain eternal life, they must accept Jesus as Messiah.
Many Christian Zionists believe we are witnessing the period when God brings Jewish people back to Canaan. These Christian Zionists also believe the biblical borders of Canaan include almost all of modern Israel and all of Palestine, not to mention Lebanon and swaths of Syria. Any two-state solution wresting the West Bank and Gaza from Israel violates God's covenant with the Jewish people.
The recent Republican primary election cycle highlighted the problem. In the lead up to an Iowa debate last December, Newt Gingrich called Palestinians an "invented" people. Herman Cain suggested the same a few months earlier. Rick Santorum argued Palestinians in the West Bank are just Israelis in waiting. Embattled Republican Congressman Joe Walsh went so far as to call for a one-state solution "with limited voting power" for Palestinians -- a highly controversial proposal that could lead to a very new type of Israel if Palestinians continue to expand inside Israel and the Occupied Territories and eventually achieve full voting rights.
These comments did nothing to help negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians; if anything, they fanned the flames. However, their primary purpose was not a misguided attempt to win over Jewish voters, who represent a sliver of the Republican primary. These statements were aimed at evangelicals, who comprised as much as half of primary voters nationwide. They were aimed at people like John Hagee.
Hagee is the country's premier Christian Zionist. His San Antonio mega-church boasts 20,000 members and his broadcasts can be seen or heard in nearly 100 million homes in 245 countries every week. He founded CUFI and supports the restoration of Israel's biblical borders, which he calls a "Royal Land Grant" from God. He has called Palestinian claims for land a "historical fraud" and said God will visit wrath upon nations attempting to divide the Holy Land. CUFI just announced its 1 millionth member.
Then-senators Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback attended CUFI's kick-off in 2006 and President George W. Bush sent a congratulatory message. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay attended CUFI's annual Washington Summit the following year. A host of conservative beltway officials, including Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, have since pledged their support. She addressed this year's summit as the keynote speaker on Tuesday night. Prime Minister Netanyahu joined her via satellite from Jerusalem.
The Christian Zionist membership rolls are growing, their coffers are deepening, their political support is widening, yet their opposition to the two-state solution remains theologically steadfast. The upcoming CUFI summit has presented an opportunity. While Christian Zionists are free to interpret the Bible however they choose, they should be candid about their beliefs. If they truly have Israel's best interests in mind, they should also listen intently to the desires of Israelis themselves (not to mention Christian Palestinians) -- even if that means supporting a two-state solution.
The author is a Public Service Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He was raised in an evangelical church in Southern California and recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land.