Will Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ on Israel-Palestine Please Evangelicals?

CT asked 11 leaders in US and Middle East to assess the red lines of a peace plan, expected soon after Netanyahu’s coalition wins election.
Will Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ on Israel-Palestine Please Evangelicals?
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source image: Senior Airman Delano Scott / JBA

When it comes to Israel, nearly all evangelicals hold dear the biblical maxim: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

But what does it mean after a fiercely contested election?

President Donald Trump will soon propose his vision of practical exegesis.

Two years in the making, Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is slated to be released soon, now that Israel has reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud party secured a virtual tie with challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, but Bibi’s right-wing coalition will push him over the top.

Neither leading candidate made the peace process with Palestinians a major plank of their campaign as the entire Israeli electorate has shifted to the right, emphasizing security over negotiation.

Other American presidents have tried and failed to advance official US policy of a two-state solution. But while Trump has brought a new energy—and unpredictability—to forge an elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he may face two very skeptical partners.

Even so, Trump has shaken the system.

Last year in May, he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem.

In February, he stopped US funding to Palestinian aid programs.

Last month, he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

And more than any president prior, he has courted evangelical opinion. LifeWay Research shows that 67 percent of American adults with evangelical beliefs have positive perceptions toward Israel, with 80 percent believing Abraham’s covenant is for all time.

But while analysts have panned Trump’s decisions as decidedly one-sided against the Palestinians, he has dangled his own deal-making reputation as—at times—a warning to the Israelis.

“Israel will have to pay a higher price,” he said after ordering the embassy’s relocation, for the Palestinians “will get something very good, because it’s their turn next.”

What does Trump expect? And will it cost him his carefully cultivated evangelical support?

Details of his plan have not been publicly released, but in February US officials Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt toured Arab capitals seeking support.

A month later Greenblatt, Trump’s chief legal officer and special representative for international negotiations, checked in with US evangelicals in a special meeting at the White House.

Axios reported that several “raised concerns.”

CT surveyed 11 evangelical leaders—7 from the US and 4 from the Middle East—to take their pulse on expectations and gauge their red lines.

“Don’t divide Jerusalem, It would disappoint me if that was President Trump’s decision,” said Skip Heitzig, senior pastor of Calvary Church, Albuquerque, who has led 40 tours to Israel. “It would be a nightmare, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere near there.”

Heitzig, not present with Greenblatt but who discussed matters subsequently in person with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, conveyed his sense that evangelical opinion mattered to the administration.

A registered independent, Heitzig says he makes his political choices based on the totality of issues. The Bible was forged in real-life politics, and he could live with a two-state solution as long as it doesn’t militarize Palestine. He believes Trump is leaning that way.

Yet he quoted Joel 3 about God’s judgment coming to those who divide the land.

“Israel has a right to exist, and a right to give away whatever they want,” Heitzig said. “But biblically and politically, it would be a mistake.”

Novelist Joel Rosenberg, a founding member of the Alliance for Jerusalem, was at the Greenblatt meeting but offers other biblical counsel.

“Israel should not be carved up like a turkey,” he said. “But Abraham, who was given the original grant, divided it with Lot to separate and achieve peace.

“I don’t hear evangelicals talking about this, but making compromises for peace is a biblical approach.”

Rosenberg is especially encouraged by Trump’s outreach to Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf. He encourages evangelicals to give the president room to maneuver.

“I have no expectations of an Israeli-Palestinian deal in the near term,” Rosenberg said, citing the intransigent stance of Mahmoud Abbas. “If that is the immediate goal, then I have no hope Trump’s plan will succeed.

“But if a well-constructed plan has the goal of revealing that the Palestinians have no intention to negotiate, other Arab leaders may say we don’t want to wait for their leadership any longer.”

As Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel, Arab Gulf nations may also decide it is in their national interest, he said.

Kushner and Greenblatt toured the Gulf to discuss Palestinian economic incentives. Anticipated are plans to create jobs, generate electricity, and desalinate water.

Rosenberg, who has also led evangelical delegations to the Arab world, senses a new willingness by Gulf Arab leaders to engage Israel. Part of this is motivated by their desire to openly do business with Israel and have access to innovative Israeli technology, he says. It’s equally borne out of a shared fear of Iran, whose sponsorship of Shiite militancy is a bigger threat to peace in the majority-Sunni region than the Palestinian issue.

Not having ties with Tel Aviv was a “wrong decision,” said a senior official in the United Arab Emirates, according to Abu Dhabi-based daily The National.

Rosenberg can live with a Palestinian capital in parts of East Jerusalem, such as Abu Dis where the Palestinians have already built a parliament. But he calls the Old City a red line. Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount are to be shared and perhaps administered jointly, but Israel must retain security control.

“The real question is not about what more Israel can give,” Rosenberg said, “But if Palestinians can accept Israel as a Jewish state and neighbor, and not hold out for the high-water mark offers they previously rejected, multiple times.”

Mitch Glaser, president of the New York-based Chosen People Ministries, a Messianic outreach to Jews, senses that evangelicals will be “profoundly disappointed” if the Trump proposal offers to trade land for peace.

But his takeaway from the LifeWay survey is that Trump needs to also address the 41 percent who say Israel, while having a biblical right to the land, also has a responsibility to share, as well as the 59 percent who say Christians should do more to love and care for the Palestinian people.

“I think evangelicals hope that Palestinians get a fair deal,” he said, “and if they don’t, they’ll be concerned.”

Glaser does not support a two-state solution, but he can live with it. For while there is a large faction of evangelicals who cannot, he says many Jewish believers in Jesus see the divided nations as the best way to preserve Israel as a Jewish state.

But not forever.

“Any livable two-state solution is a temporary solution to help Israelis and Palestinians live in peace,” Glaser said.

“But eventually we believe the land belongs to the Jewish people—though Palestinians, Druze, Bedouins, and people of all faiths should be welcome, as Israel is a democracy and called to be a blessing to the nations.”

Glaser did not elaborate on when, or if his vision is only eschatological. But it veers closely toward the clear red line of another pro-Israel evangelical.

“Beware the one-state solution,” said Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project. “Economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians is important, but pushing the two national movements toward a single state is like putting two rabid dogs into a locked room.”

Given the long frustrations in achieving peace through a two-state solution, Nicholson noted that both Jews and Arabs have been warming to the one-state idea, though with different visions.

“To keep the support of [Trump’s] Messianic Jewish and evangelical base, the red lines would be dividing Jerusalem and setting up a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria,” said Joel Chernoff, general secretary of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), using a favored term for the West Bank.

“If [his] plan runs consistent with God’s prophetic plan, the chances are very good that it will succeed, despite opposition from every corner of the earth.”

The MJAA officially endorses a one-state solution, with Palestinians recognized as non-voting “permanent residents.” But the UAE official signaled his eventual expectation of one state with equal rights, as a Palestine carved out of existing Jewish settlements is no longer practical.

President Trump has said he is in favor of the traditional US position of two states but opened the door to something different.

“If the Israelis and the Palestinians want one state, that’s OK with me,” he said at a September news conference in New York, reported Reuters. “If they want two states, that’s OK with me.”

Nicholson anticipates the plan will emphasize security over full statehood, and economic development over political agreement. But the onus is on Palestinians, with the expectation a major Israeli concession will be demanded.

If there is hope, Trump’s pre-plan policy shifts will have made it happen.

“As a notorious disrupter, Trump actually brings something that everyone needs: a fresh start,” said Nicholson.

“It’s possible that Trump’s renowned recklessness, as bothersome as it is on so many other issues, may prove pivotal here.”

Gerald McDermott, Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School who recently wrote The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, does not share even his minimal optimism.

“The peace process is a sham,” he said. “But it makes for great theater and gives journalists much to write about.”

McDermott advocates a realistic approach, and his red lines are simple: no return to the 1949 boundaries, which were never meant to be permanent; no ceding the Temple Mount; and no right of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, which would be unlike all other examples of post-war resettlement.

Otherwise a two-state solution is fine.

But McDermott also lacks Rosenberg’s hope of an Arab-mediated agreement. They might privately signal openness but could never risk losing popular support with a public endorsement.

But even if they did, it would fall flat in the West Bank and Gaza.

“Such a deal would be possible only if the Palestinian leaders prepared their people for peace,” he said. “You cannot have an agreement when one side has made it abundantly clear it does not want an agreement.”

Gary Burge agrees, but in the opposite direction.

“The United States has not been a neutral broker of peace for years,” said the Calvin Seminary professor, author of Whose Land? Whose Promise?, and a regular contributor at the Christ at the Checkpoint conferences hosted by Bethlehem Bible College.

“We support Israeli national interests consistently, but barely make attempts to listen sympathetically to the national aspirations of Palestinians living under a harsh military occupation.”

Settlements are the key issue and Burge’s red line. But also troublesome is Israel’s recently passed Basic Law declaring it is the nation-state of the Jewish people, which he says marginalizes its 20 percent Arab population. The United States must show “moral stamina” and stand up for its formal policies.

Instead, Trump reversed them.

“Our efforts have disregarded international concerns and the interests of the Palestinian people,” said Burge, specifically mentioning the Golan Heights and the Jerusalem embassy. “We should keep our expectations for this plan low.”

Even lower are those of Salim Munayer, director of the Musalaha center in Jerusalem, promoting biblical principles of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians of diverse religious backgrounds. “Any top-down, imposed peace plan is doomed to fail,” he said, “and that’s what it seems will happen here.”

Munayer believes grassroots initiatives are necessary, criticizing Trump for failing to engage the Palestinians as equal partners. Instead, he has undermined their core demands—especially on East Jerusalem.

Both sides have violated previous agreements, but Munayer expects Israel will formally accept this one while taking advantage of its relationship with the United States to add clarifications and conditions to wiggle around it.

The result has been a popular Arab rejection of full peace with Israel, even in states with a formal peace treaty.

“Egyptian Muslims and Christians look positively at the peace treaty with Israel,” said Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “But they don’t want normalized relations until there is a final solution for the Palestinian problem.”

At the same time, he said, there is widespread rejection of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, for its contribution to terrorism in Egypt. But terrorism as a whole can only be stamped out by justice.

East Jerusalem should be the Palestinian capital, and a two-state solution allows all to live in peace and dignity, Zaki said.

Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological College, agrees and actually has hope. Trump’s alliance with the Gulf states bodes well for peace in the region.

That is, if Israel can appeal to the hearts and minds of the Arab street.

“There are deep-seated emotions due to the Palestinian loss of lands and homes,” he said. “Israel, which claims the moral high ground, really needs to explain how it could justify the displacement that occurred at its founding.”

It will make a “huge difference” if they do. But while he appreciates Trump’s efforts at “fresh thinking,” the only true peace comes from Jesus.

“Nations have a tendency to move away from righteousness,” Shehadeh said. “Only the Prince of Peace can turn them to God, through the redemption Christ secured on the cross.”

April
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