TALLAHASSEE - One of the most urgent but least discussed issues of the presidential campaign is the extreme religious agenda that appears to be distorting U.S. policy toward Israel, to the peril of both nations.
The force in question is the Christian fundamentalist movement most commonly known as premillennialism. It prophesies that Jesus will return and true believers will be whisked bodily to heaven, minus their clothes and jewelery, upon the fulfillment of certain conditions familiar to readers of the popular Left Behind books. These include the creation of the state of Israel, Israel's occupation of all of its "biblical lands," and the construction of a Third Temple on the Temple Mount, currently the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosques.
The first is fact. The second goes so far beyond the disputed West Bank and Gaza that not even Israel aspires to it. The third, which contemplates the desecration of one of Islam's holiest places, would set off a nuclear war (think Pakistan and Iran) with infinitely more certainty than anything predicted in the Book of Revelation. A simple visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount four years ago was enough to bring on the current intifada that by one estimate has claimed nearly 4,000 lives and made Sharon prime minister.
But to the millennialists, a holy war in the Middle East would be good news, not bad, because it would be the war leading to Armageddon. As for the Iraqi war, it's a prophecy fulfilled.
As Bill Moyers remarked in a speech last month, "A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed. If there's a conflagration there, they come out winners on the far side of tribulation, inside the pearly gates, in celestial splendor, supping on ambrosia to the accompaniment of harps plucked by angels."
The present danger is not so much that people making U.S. policy believe these end-times prophecies, as some do, to the extent that they would deliberately try to fulfill them. But the White House is clearly so sensitive to voters who believe them that it has bent policy to their will, most recently by endorsing the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Yet this has gone unmentioned in the debates so far and remains largely unnoticed in the mainstream American press despite Moyers' eloquent warning in a speech last month to the Society of Professional Journalists.
Moyers, an ordained clergyman who knows as much as anyone about the interaction of religion and politics, said the millennialists amount to only 15 percent of the electorate but most are Republican, and that Bush "knows who they are and what they want." When Bush asked Sharon to withdraw tanks from Jenin two years ago, Moyers said, more than 100,000 fundamentalist e-mails hit the White House and Bush said nothing more about it. The West Bank concession, reversing decades of sensible U.S. policy, was another manifestation.
"No wonder Karl Rove walks around the west wing whistling Onward Christian Soldiers," Moyers said. "He knows how many votes he is likely to get from these pious folk who believe that the Rapture Index now stands at 144 - just one point below the critical threshhold at which point the prophecy is fulfilled, the whole thing blows, the sky is filled with floating naked bodies, and the true believers wind up at the right hand of God."
Israel is nothing more than a means to an end for the millennialists. In their eschatology, Jews who don't convert when Jesus returns face as grotesque a fate as anything the Inquisition ever invented.
With friends like those, Israel doesn't need enemies. What it needs from its real friends, including the United States, is the tough love that compels it to get out of Gaza and the whole West Bank. Having done that, Israel could build a security fence entirely on its own territory and no one would be entitled to complain.
I do not pretend that such compromise would immediately reconcile Saudia Arabia and Iran, or any of their terrorist client groups, to the perpetual existence of the state of Israel. But it would give Israel the moral high ground once again and eliminate the pious pretexts for the overtly anti-Israeli and subtly anti-Semitic expressions of many Western governments and nongovernmental organizations.
The Presbyterians, for example, have already vowed to disinvest in companies that do business in Israel and the Episcopalians are now threatening to do the same. These policies invite disrespect, notwithstanding the legitimate grievances of the Palestinians, because they are so one-sided. There would have been peace long ago if the Saudis wanted it, but you don't hear anybody proposing disinvestment in them. Unlike Israel, they have oil.
Many people believe that oil was the real reason for the Iraq war. Whether true or not, even that would be more rational than a policy that invites a wider war for the sake of pleasing Karl Rove's "base." In Arabic, by the way, "the base" is pronounced al-Qaida.