Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech to the United States Congress on 3 March 2015 was targeted at several audiences, among them the Israeli electorate, Republicans in his audience, and the wider American public. The Israeli prime minister also sought to put direct pressure on Barack Obama and John Kerry at a moment when their attempts to get a deal with Tehran are at a crucial stage.
The central theme of the speech was that Obama’s stance will not stop Iran developing nuclear weapons and that these will directly imperil the very existence of Israel: "I've come here today because, as prime minister of Israel, I feel a profound obligation to speak to you about an issue that could well threaten the survival of my country and the future of my people: Iran's quest for nuclear weapons."
Netanyahu’s continual reference to the “existential threat” underlines his appeal to the American public over Obama's head - a rare step taken in the full knowledge that it strikes at the very status of the United States presidency in its own country. In normal circumstances this would be quite a risky strategy, but Netanyahu has calculated that he can afford to pursue it. Why?
Many people in western Europe have considerable difficulty understanding Netanyahu’s standing in the United States, which seems to relate to the remarkable the power and influence of what is often termed the “Jewish lobby”. How can this be? After all, the Jewish population in the US is very small - little more than 6 million out of 315 million - and tends to be politically liberal on many issues, typically supporting the Democrats and not the Republicans.
The starting-point of understanding this is that it should be called the “Israel lobby” rather than the "Jewish lobby", not least because many American Jews are singularly suspicious of Netanyahu. The key lobbying group is the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose strategists have long known that they need to work with the wider US public in their purpose of heightening support for Israel. These strategists are aware that the most important element in this target constituency is "Christian Zionism", a phenomenon little recognised among western European politicians.
Its role was explored in a column in this series just over a decade ago (see "Christian Zionists and neo-cons: a heavenly marriage", 3 February 2005 ). It is worth returning to the theme, especially in relation to Netanyahu’s emphasis on the existential threat to Israel.
The end days cometh
Although there has been a recent decline in religiosity in the United States, it is still a far more religious country than in most of western Europe. For example, 37% of Americans profess to attend a place of worship weekly or more, compared with 13% for the UK. The largest group of worshippers is evangelical Christians, who number 95 million - nearly one-third of the population - and who tend to be particularly diligent in practising their faith. They are also more likely to vote than most Americans, a relevant fact in a country of low polling for presidential elections (typically around 50%). Most significant of all is that they tend to vote Republican.
It is within American evangelical Christianity that the real concern here lies, particularly in an aspect that the Israel lobby appreciates only too well - Christian Zionism. This is the belief that God has a crucial role for the Jewish people in the final confrontation between good and evil when the “end days” come. Many Christian Zionists believe these are imminent.
The belief is that God has given Judaism a dispensation to prepare the way for the "second coming" and that this will be in Israel - which is thus a central element of God’s plan for humanity and the site of the last great battle. The thinking is commonly known as dispensational theology or “dispensationalism” and much of its initial development came from the writings of a Plymouth Brethren pastor, John Darby, especially when he studied at Trinity College, Dublin, in the 1820s.
It developed apace with the Biblical Conference Movement of the 1870s and got a further boost with the publication of a key work of biblical exegesis, the Scofield Bible of 1909. Bible schools teaching dispensationalism flourished from the 1920s onwards, the most significant being the Dallas Theological Seminary which was founded in 1924 and now has eight campuses worldwide.
A real impetus came with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent expansion of Israel’s territory in the 1967 six-day war. To Christian Zionists, the fact that so much of Biblical Israel was in the hands of the Jews seemed a large part of the fulfilment of God's plan.
Today's Christian Zionism has proved adept in embracing social media. Some of the main organisations - such as Stand for Israel and the International Christian Embassy - are highly effective in promoting support for Israel including the development of links between evangelical congregations in the United States and West Bank settlements.
The numbers involved in the United States are not easy to judge with precision, but it is broadly the case that the proportion of really sincere Christian Zionists among evangelical Christians is around a fifth to a quarter - up to nearly 25 million. That alone is three to four times the US's Jewish population; but even more important is that the idea of Jews having a place in God’s plan is far more widespread within evangelical Christianity as a whole.
The missing piece
This does much to explain Netanyahu’s repeated reference to Iran as an existential threat. To most people this means that Israel as a state could somehow be wiped out by an Iranian nuclear attack, certainly an unparalleled disaster in human terms. To Christian Zionists, though, it is much more than this - a veritable assault on God’s plan for us all. The Iran nuclear threat, in other words, is truly fundamental in its implications; so for Christian Zionists, Israel simply must survive.
Netanyahu understands this full well and plays to it repeatedly. A key element is left unspoken, however. Dispensationalism implies that on the day of judgment, after the dispensation to Judaism has served its purpose, only true believers will be saved. All others, including Jews who have not converted, will be consigned to eternal damnation.
This is not a great vote winner for Netanyahu, so somehow gets left out from the useful relationship with Christian Zionism. After all, politics makes for strange bedfellows, especially when there is a difficult election to win.