Editor’s Note: Although the “Israel lobby” and the support of the American Jewish community for Israel have long received considerable attention, the U.S. evangelical community and its strong backing for Israel has not received comparable attention. This neglect is surprising, as the U.S. evangelical community dwarfs the American Jewish community in size and political power and its motivations for supporting Israel are distinct. Paul Miller, a political scientist at RAND and a former National Security Staff member in the Bush and Obama administrations, offers an insightful description of the theological justifications of the U.S. evangelical community’s role in supporting Israel and presents provocative recommendations calling for the United States to reconsider the priority it gives to the relationship with Israel.
There really is an “Israel lobby” that influences U.S. foreign policy, but it is made up of more Christians than Jews. The Pew Forum found in 2013 that 82 percent of white evangelicals believed that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God—more than double the percentage of American Jews who believed the same—and almost half of them believed the United States was not supportive enough of Israel. White evangelicals made up 23 percent of the electorate in 2012, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, large enough for their beliefs to influence candidates’ foreign policy platforms. Much of the support for Israel among evangelicals and fundamentalists stems from a distinctive reading of the Old Testament. They believe that God’s promises to Abraham regarding Israel were both literal and unbreakable and that these promises still hold today. Therefore, nations friendly to Israel stand to be blessed by God, while those opposed court his wrath.
The religiously grounded pro-Israel viewpoint distorts American policy towards Israel with an unhelpful inflexibility and exaggerates the political importance of the country (indeed, the whole region) to the United States. The time, attention, and resources the United States brings to bear on the region have become disproportionate to U.S. political interests there. American policymakers should recognize that there is more theological disagreement on this issue than is widely recognized. The fundamentalist viewpoint does not have strong support in older Christian theology, and emerging evangelical leaders, such as Rick Warren and Russell Moore, tend not to agree with it.
Policymakers should thus feel freer to develop alternative approaches to U.S. policy in the Middle East based on more traditional grounds, such as American security interests and humanitarian ideals. Although the United States should always support Israel’s right to exist, it need not support every Israeli initiative and policy, sustain the high amount of foreign aid the United States gives to Israel every year, nor even spend much time worrying about what is, in reality, a minor dispute in a strategically secondary region of the world compared to Europe and East Asia.
For most of Christian history, Christians believed that God’s promises to Abraham about Israel in the Old Testament should be understood figuratively. God’s promise of a special land for Abraham’s descendants was understood as the promise of heaven—the ultimate Promised Land—for all of the faithful. Christians generally did not look for the reestablishment of the state of Israel and did not look for signs of the end of the world in geopolitical developments in the Middle East.
A new school of theology called dispensationalism arose in the early 19th century that would eventually introduce these ideas into British and American evangelicalism and fundamentalism. It remains a minority view among professing Christians worldwide, as neither the Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox churches agree with it. Dispensationalists argued that the Bible nowhere clearly said that God’s promises to Abraham in the Old Testament had been voided or transferred to the Church (the traditional Christian view). If those promises were still valid, they applied to Abraham and his descendants, meaning (again, reading literally) Jews, not Christians. That includes all the promises God made to Abraham. God promises, at various points, to bless Abraham, give him offspring, make him the father of many nations, bless all peoples through him—and, quite explicitly, to give him a specific piece of real estate. God’s favor on Israel has straightforward implications for the other nations of the world: if you want to be on God’s side, be nice to Israel. God told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse,” (Genesis 12:3, English Standard Version).
In the 19th century, dispensationalists regularly predicted that God would fulfill his promise to Abraham by reestablishing a literal state of Israel in the Holy Land, a remarkable claim to make several decades before the First Zionist Congress in 1897. The establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948 gave dispensationalism a major boost to its credibility and brought it into the mainstream.
Dispensationalism is an aberration in the history of Christian thought. Neither Augustine nor Aquinas (nor Luther nor Calvin) read Scripture the way dispensationalists do. Augustine, for example, argued that the Church was the inheritor of God’s promises to Israel, and those promises should be understood figuratively rather than politically. At any rate, dispensationalism may have passed its prime. Dispensationalists could never agree amongst themselves about how exactly to interpret world events, who the Antichrist was, or when the rapture was to happen. Too many of their conflicting predictions have been falsified by the passage of time.
Due in part to the influence of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid—ever. Since 1951, the United States has given Israel $193 billion in economic and military aid—the vast bulk of it since the Camp David Accords in 1978—according to USAID’s Green Book. Israel has received more money in aid than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan combined; more than Vietnam during the decade-long U.S. reconstruction and counterinsurgency effort there; and even, astonishingly, more than all of Europe under the Marshall Plan (the Marshall Plan disbursed $13.3 billion between 1948 and 1952, according to The Marshall Foundation. That is equivalent to about $130 billion today when adjusted for inflation).
The United States can and should maintain support for Israel’s existence, its efforts to defend against terrorism and Iranian nuclear blackmail, and its good-faith diplomatic efforts to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority, but the unhesitating diplomatic, military, and economic support for Israel is not in the United States’ interests. In particular, the United States does not need to sustain the high levels of foreign aid it gives to Israel, tolerate the Mossad’s long record of espionage against American targets, play a direct role brokering agreements between the Israelis and their neighbors, or even care very deeply about the Israel-Palestine dispute.
The level of U.S. aid to Israel is out of all proportion to Israel’s importance to U.S. strategic interests. According to the Green Book, most American aid to Israel—an average of 70 percent since Camp David, but rising to 98 percent in 2011—is military aid, specifically the waiving of payments for foreign military financing contracts. The United States should simply stop issuing waivers and seek payment, thereby converting aid into trade. As the third-largest buyer of U.S. weapons, Israel has demonstrated that it can afford to pay.
Secondly, Israel has a long record of spying on the United States. American officials do not openly discuss this uncomfortable aspect of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but reports occasionally surface of American officials’ private frustrations with Israel’s alarmingly aggressive espionage against the United States. Israeli espionage is probably motivated, first, by a desire to discern American policymakers’ true intentions towards Israel because Israeli officials are insecure about whether the United States would, in fact, stand by Israel in case of an all-out war with its neighbors. Second, Israel may undertake industrial espionage to help its small economy stay commercially competitive, particularly in the defense technology sector. The United States should insist, on grounds of principle, that the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid not steal secrets, as this undermines other allies’ confidence in American competence.
Finally, American policymakers’ time and attention seems disproportionately taken up worrying about a region of the world that is, in truth, secondary to worldwide American interests. Some critics argue that U.S. policy towards Israel is wrong because it is unfair to the Palestinians. Whether or not that is true is beside the point: lots of political relationships are characterized by unfairness, but not all of them are relevant to U.S. national security. Americans tend to read something unique, portentous, and epic into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is time for U.S. policymakers to see the conflict for what it is: a fairly typical real estate spat between a micro-sovereignty and a failed state that is peripheral to U.S. national security interests.
The United States certainly has interests in the Middle East, including counterproliferation, counterterrorism, and the stability of world energy markets; but they do not outweigh U.S. interests in Europe or East Asia. Those theaters are home to the United States’ largest trading partners, most powerful allies, and most powerful competitors. Even South Asia may be of greater importance than the Middle East; contrary to the typical narrative, South Asia, not the Middle East, is the locus of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation. It is in the European and Asian theaters that U.S. security in the 21st century will be assured or threatened to a far greater degree than in the Middle East.
American policy towards the Middle East has often been a haphazard blend of hard-headed realism about oil, idealistic humanitarian concerns, and dispensationalist theology. The result has not served American interests well. As the popularity of dispensationalism wanes, policymakers can and should continuously reevaluate the U.S. stance towards Israel and the broader Middle East. The United States can start treating Israel and the Middle East as a normal region of the world, and develop its foreign policy accordingly.
Dr. Paul D. Miller is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an assistant professor of international security affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He previously served on the National Security Staff in the White House for both the Bush and Obama administrations. The views expressed here are his own.