JERUSALEM – The following is a column I wrote for the Jerusalem Post.
The formation of a new government to replace Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is a political earthquake that will shake the pro-Israel Evangelical community in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
After serving as prime minister for 15 years, including the last 12 consecutive years, Netanyahu is the only Israeli premier that almost any Evangelical knows.
He is certainly the most respected and trusted.
More than that, Bibi is beloved by the vast majority of the 60 million Evangelical Christians in the United States, and by many of the 600 million Evangelicals worldwide.
Most Evangelicals do not know incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Nor do they know incoming Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Indeed, most have never heard of them until this month, so there is no trust there yet.
Such trust can be developed because above all, Evangelicals love and support Israel unconditionally – they want the best for the Jewish state, regardless of who leads the country – but it will take time and a concerted effort.
For starters, it would be useful for the leaders of Israel’s new government to realize why Evangelicals have come to love Netanyahu so much.
A CHAMPION OF ISRAELI SECURITY
Ever since he burst on the American scene as Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations during the Gulf War in 1991, appearing frequently on CNN and other TV programs, the vast majority of rank-and-file Evangelical Christians at the grassroots level were drawn to Netanyahu.
They see him as a stalwart champion of Israel security, peace, and prosperity, and that’s what they want in an Israeli leader.
They deeply admire Netanyahu’s courageous and decisive stand against the terror masters in Tehran, which they believe pose an existential threat to the State of Israel, and against radical Islamist terror movements around the region, from Hamas to Hezbollah to the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State and beyond.
They cheered when Netanyahu addressed a Joint Session of Congress to courageously speak against President Barack Obama’s dangerously flawed nuclear deal with Iran.
They applauded when Bibi consistently confronted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ corruption, complicity with terror, and congenital resistance even to direct peace talks, much less actually negotiating a peace treaty.
For decades, they stood enthusiastically with Netanyahu in the effort to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem and to persuade the U.S. to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and they were grateful when these efforts bore fruit.
And they were thrilled that under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel signed peace and normalization agreements last year with four Arab governments – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
Evangelicals believe that Netanyahu deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his participation in the historic and game-changing Abraham Accords, and they are right – he does.
CONSISTENTLY CULTIVATING EVANGELICAL LEADERS
What’s more, senior Evangelical leaders came to know Netanyahu personally. They have met with him, interacted with him, asked him their questions, and had him speak at their conferences, events, and churches.
More than any other leader in the history of Israel, Netanyahu actively courted and cultivated relationships with Evangelical leaders for thirty years.
Because he believed Evangelicals who are deeply immersed in the teachings of the Bible – who truly know and love the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and believe in the prophecies about the rebirth of the State of Israel and regathering of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland – are Israel’s most important, faithful, loyal and strategic allies in the world.
Evangelicals have, therefore, responded enthusiastically to Netanyahu’s requests to help him bolster political support and Congressional funding for Israel in Washington, fight global anti-Semitism, and defend Israel in the mainstream media and on social media.
What’s more, they have responded generously to his requests that they bring more Christian tourists to Israel, give more charitable donations to care for the poor and needy in Israel, and build a larger movement of prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, in keeping with King David’s admonition in Psalm 122:6.
OPERATING AS A GLOBAL STATESMAN
Today, Evangelicals see Israel suddenly – and in their eyes, unexpectedly – losing not just another prime minister but a powerful and effective global statesman.
Indeed, Netanyahu has become a global brand who wields far more international influence than a country of fewer than 10 million citizens would seem to warrant.
Over the past several decades, he has learned to play on the world stage with political giants of our age. Netanyahu can pick up the phone and get Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, and others on the line. He can jump on a jet and go meet with any of these power players on a moment’s notice. He knows them. They know him. He meets with them regularly. And love him or hate him, these world leaders respect Netanyahu, and know that he does not mess around when it comes to Israel’s security.
Evangelicals have little exposure to, or context for, the messy political in-fighting in Jerusalem, the allegations of Netanyahu’s corruption, or the frustrations that even many of Netanyahu’s long-time allies have towards his personality and style of management.
Most are not aware that the leaders of almost all the center-right parties in Israel are former Netanyahu chiefs of staff, top advisors, and/or Cabinet members who now refuse to work with Netanyahu any longer.
In short, most Evangelicals are not ready to say, “Bye bye, Bibi.”
Now, they have to.
THE TEST – AND OPPORTUNITY – FOR BENNETT AND LAPID?
The big question now is this: Will Bennett, Lapid and their colleagues and advisors learn from and build upon the Netanyahu legacy with Evangelicals?
For the sake of the country and this important alliance, I hope so.
Most Evangelicals, for example, will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Naftali Bennett is, in many ways, Netanyahu’s protegee.
And that Bennett served in the same IDF special forces unit as Netanyahu.
And that Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and was once one of his closest political allies.
And that Bennett’s ideology and policies are almost exactly the same as Netanyahu’s.
And that Bennett served in Netanyahu’s cabinet in multiple positions, including as Defense Minister and as Education Minister.
And that Bennett wanted to join a Netanyahu-led right-wing government, but that it was Netanyahu who was not able to cobble together the necessary 61 seat majority.
Likewise, most Evangelicals will be surprised to learn that Yair Lapid used to work very closely with Netanyahu.
And that Lapid served in Netanyahu’s cabinet as Finance Minister.
And that Lapid is a centrist, not a radical left-winger.
And that it was Lapid who actively and successfully courted many right-wingers to join this new “change government” – not just Bennett and his Yamina (“Rightward”) party, but Gideon Sa’ar (who used to be the number two official in Netanyahu’s Likud party), and Avigdor Liberman (who used to be Netanyahu’s chief of staff.)
I have not yet met with Bennett but have gotten to know some of his team.
However, I have met with and interviewed Lapid over the years, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and incoming Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar (whom I consider a personal friend), as well as their advisors.
While I don’t agree with them on every issue, I like these men. I believe they are honest, principled, candid, and care deeply about steering Israel in the right direction.
I also believe that if they are positive and pro-active in reaching out to the Christian community, and do interviews with Christian media, and invite Christian leaders to come meet with them, that they will be warmly welcomed by Evangelicals and truly strengthen this critically important alliance.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.