Some years ago, at a bookshop in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, I noticed a shelf of paperbacks aimed at the many Christian evangelicals from the United States who visit the Holy Land.
I bought one paperback, by end-times theologians Thomas Ice and J. Randall Price, titled “Ready to Rebuild: The Imminent Plan to Rebuild the Last Days Temple.” It detailed what Jews must do in Jerusalem to bring on Armageddon, which in turn would lead to the rapture and lifting up of those who accepted Christ. (The rest, including Jews who refuse to convert, are, of course, doomed.)
I thought of Ice and Price as Vice President Pence visited Jerusalem this week, a trip that aimed at pleasing the 81 percent of white evangelicals who backed President Trump rather than advancing any peace process.
In fact, Pence’s visit illustrates the confused mess of Trump’s Middle East policy one year after his election.
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Yes, the president achieved his goal of eradicating the ISIS caliphate, an acceleration of a process well on its way under President Obama (whose allergy to Iraq inadvertently enabled ISIS). The administration’s further goals were to prevent ISIS 2.0, counter Iran, and achieve the “deal of the century” between Palestinians and Israel. As I write, NATO ally Turkey is threatening U.S. troops in northern Syria, while the White House and Pentagon publicly argue over Syria policy. Iran and Russia are gloating.
And nothing better illustrates the administration’s Mideast muddle than Pence’s religion-infused pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The vice president’s effusive speech to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) was filled with so many biblical references some Israeli journalists called it a “sermon.” Its exposition of faith as the link between American and Israel thrilled Israeli leaders and parties of the religious right. So did Pence’s announcement that U.S. Embassy functions would be moved to Jerusalem by the end of 2019, after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But the speech did nothing to make Israel more secure.
By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - with no reference to the city’s Arab sectors, whose final status Israel and the United States had pledged to negotiate - the Trump team already doomed its peace efforts. If the fate of Arab East Jerusalem is off the (negotiating) table, as the president has tweeted, neither Palestinians, nor Sunni Arab leaders can endorse any peace proposal by Trump.
And Pence’s pandering to Trump’s evangelical base - encouraging hard religious right forces in Israel - adds a dangerous new element to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. (The political clout of those forces could be seen in the fact that female reporters covering Pence’s visit to pray at the Western Wall – the holy Jewish religious site – were made to stand in back of male reporters out of viewing range.)
In his blind faith, the vice president seemed clueless of the havoc his religious endorsement could unleash.
Keep in mind that back in 1984, a small group of messianic Israeli Jews nearly succeeded in a plot to blow up Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. That was the site of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD) and Islam’s third holiest mosque. That’s also the site where Ice and Price call for Jews to rebuild their Third Temple in order to accelerate the coming of Armageddon (because it would spark a hoped for conflagration between the Muslim world and Israeli Jews).
True, Pence called on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, including at the Temple Mount, also known as the Haram al-Sharif. And true, Israeli orthodox religious scholars oppose the idea of rebuilding the temple before the coming of the messiah. But the Trump team’s position on Jerusalem and Pence’s religious embrace, could inspire religious radicals inside Israel, who feel emboldened by the current political climate inside Israel.
And leaks of the long-awaited Trump “peace plan” do little to discourage radical thinking - on both the Israeli or Palestinian side.
The Trump plan reportedly would leave Palestinians with limited control of roughly 40 percent of the West Bank, not including Jerusalem or Gaza. Borders, water, airspace, internet, and security would be controlled by Israelis.
Neither Palestinians nor Arab states will accept this as a solution. That will leave Israel ruling over 4.5 million Palestinians (not including another 1.7 million inside Israel or 300,000 who live in Jerusalem). The Arab population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will soon outnumber Israeli Jews.
So it is no wonder that the Pence visit inspired black humor from some Israeli journalists. “After Pence leaves and Bibi takes off for Davos, the Arabs will still be here,” political columnist Ben Caspit wrote on Tuesday in the Maariv newspaper, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
“How unfortunate that we can’t replace all the Arabs with evangelicals, heralding the era of the Messiah. But it’s actually better that the Messiah not come, because then we'll have to convert to Christianity.”
Pence was certainly no political messiah, nor did his message enhance the prospects for peace.