1. At CUFI, a glance into 2020 battle over evangelical vote
It’s the 14th year Christians United For Israel (CUFI) gathered in the nation’s capital for their Washington Summit this Monday, and much has changed since the first time the San Antonio-based faith group converged on DC: the venue has changed to Washington’s gigantic convention center, attendance has multiplied, and the roster of speakers has grown to include top administration officials and conservative lawmakers. CUFI is now playing on the big kids’ field. This year, the Trump administration sent over its Israel A-team of speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Middle East Peace Envoy Jason Greenblatt and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman. This is a full blown AIPAC-style roster, one that would make any advocacy group turn green with envy.
Dispatching all these top names is, at least in part, a reflection of the group’s growing influence in the pro-Israel scene. Thanks to its massive support base (CUFI just announced it reached 7 million members) and to one of its key funders, GOP mega donor Sheldon Adelson, CUFI has garnered a lot of attention. But the lineup of Trump administration speakers is also a clear sign of the importance the president and his team see in getting evangelical voters out in 2020 and of how effective the Israel card can be in achieving this goal.
Nowhere was this more evident than during John Bolton’s speech on Monday. The national security adviser, an old hand in national security but an official whom no one has ever accused of possessing any measure of charisma, delivered a thoughtful, well-organized presentation, listing the Trump administration’s pro-Israel actions, from defunding UNRWA to dropping out of the Iran nuclear deal. And while the audience responded positively, and quietly, to his message, there was one moment in which Bolton got the crowd on their feet. It was in his concluding line, when Bolton, rather awkwardly, segued into partisan politics, praising Trump and asking the listeners to “imagine what he’ll accomplish in his second term.” Mentioning the upcoming elections got the audience to its feet in a lengthy standing ovation, many chanting loudly “four more years.” It was a symbolic moment that delivered exactly what the administration had hoped for—the perfect identification between seeing more of the same policy on Israel and sending Trump for another term at the White House.
Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Expecting a tighter race in 2020, the GOP is working hard to maintain these rates and even improve on this number. One key to winning evangelical votes is through conservative judicial nominations, and here Trump has been everything they could have ever hoped for and then some. With two Supreme Court nominations and dozens more on other federal benches, Trump has made his mark in changing the character of America’s judiciary, presumably in a way that will better address the interests of conservative evangelicals. The issue of Israel may come in second or third on their priority list, but it is still a powerful tool for energizing evangelical voters. Looking at this week’s CUFI gathering, the Trump campaign can check this box too. Support for the president is strong and excitement is palpable. The term “the greatest friend of Israel” was stated time and again during the summit, but it took a Jewish speaker, Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, a close friend of CUFI founder John Hagee, to coin an even better phrase: “the miracle called Trump-Pence.”
2. How did they perform?
Each Trump administration official taking the stage at CUFI came with his own style, though all shared the same policy bullet points. For Vice President Pence, speaking at CUFI’s Washington Summit for the third time and coming with well-established Christian conservative credentials, it was all about taking the fight to the enemy. He accused the Democratic Party “that has been home for so many American Jews for so long” of not standing up to anti-Semitism from within. He then stirred the audience with repeated rebuttals of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison between border detention centers and Nazi-era concentration camps. Bolton stuck to his image of a policy guy, focusing on past and future steps taken against Iran. Pompeo drew heavily on biblical references, making the Christian religious case for supporting Israel and decrying the fate of Christians in Arab countries. For Greenblatt, a friendly on-stage Q and A session provided him with an opportunity to embark on yet another attack on the Palestinian Authority and its leaders. And for Ambassador Friedman, who was honored with CUFI’s Defender of Israel award, it was all about justifying his decision to participate in the ceremonial opening of an ancient archeological site known as the Pilgrims’ Road tunnel, which runs under a Palestinian village. Friedman’s contribution to the oddness of the evening was an attempt to lead the Christian evangelical crowd into a lengthy “Dayenu” (based on the Passover Haggadah song) with the list of God’s measures taken to benefit his Jewish people replaced by a list of Trump’s pro-Israel actions.
3. Hagee’s powerful rebuke of (some) anti-Semitism
Acknowledging the tough couple of years American Jews have experienced due to a significant rise in anti-Semitism and violence, Pastor Hagee devoted his keynote speech to the issue. He urged CUFI members to take action, stating that “Christian anti-semitism is an oxymoron” and that “all anti-Semites live under the curse of God Almighty.” It was a powerful, emotional cry for fighting hatred toward Jews. But it did not avoid the political divide that has come to define anti-Semitism in the Trump era. Apart from mentioning briefly that “synagogues are invaded by madmen with automatic rifles with the sole purpose of killing Jews,” Hagee focused his entire call for action on other types of anti-Semitism—those “creeping into the halls of our government” through comments made by members of Congress, anti-Semitism on college campuses, where Hagee claimed “the ghost of Hitler is walking across colleges and universities in America,” and the BDS movement. He claimed that “when faced with anti-Semitic speech in Congress, members are turning out sham resolutions,” and urged CUFI members to lobby their representatives to adopt legislation which would broaden the definition of anti-Semitism, essentially declaring some types of anti-Israel expressions as anti-Semitic. These issues were also stressed by other speakers at the conference, highlighting once again the problem plaguing America’s effort to prevent anti-Semitism from taking hold: each side has its “own” anti-Semitism to fight. For liberals, the focus is on white supremacy and the growing acceptance it has been enjoying in the halls of power, and for conservatives, anti-Semitism is all about Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments and left-wing college “apartheid week” events.
4. CUFI is becoming increasingly valuable for Netanyahu
Israelis, and even some American Jews, have long gotten over their initial suspicion toward Christian Zionists. Israeli governments, especially from the right, recognize the potential of CUFI as a new ally that can pave the way to millions of evangelical supporters and have been less concerned by the fact that it is an ultra-conservative constituency whose views on domestic issues run contrary to those held by most American Jews. But in recent years, CUFI has become an even more valuable ally for Netanyahu. While AIPAC, the established pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse, remains Israel’s most reliable partner in ensuring the key components of U.S.-Israel relations—foreign aid, military and intelligence cooperation, and countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions—Bibi also needs help on issues AIPAC, as a mainstream bipartisan organization, cannot provide. These include support for politically controversial issues such as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (which AIPAC supported but never made a top policy priority) and now, for backing Netanyahu’s quest to annex parts of the West Bank after the elections. This task, bound to raise significant opposition among Democrats and many American Jews, is not fit for AIPAC. Here, the Israeli prime minister is more likely to count on CUFI, a group unbound by bipartisanship, to carry the message.
5. There’s more to come
The 2020 elections are still quite far away, especially for Republicans who don’t need to worry about a lengthy primary race. But as they draw closer, the GOP and the Trump campaign are likely to increase their pressure on evangelical voters. The theme of “Trump is the greatest friend Israel has ever had” is likely to emerge as a key selling point in targeted campaigning, aimed at making sure Christian evangelicals live up to their reputation as Trump’s No.1 support group.