Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, a leading figure in Jewish-Evangelical Christian relations for two decades, offered a more sympathetic description of Bush's alignment with Israel and Sharon. "President Bush's policy stems from his core as a Christian, his perceptions of right and wrong, good and evil, and of the need to stand up and fight against evil," Eckstein said. "I personally believe it is very personal, not a political maneuver on his part."
Politics have played a role, several sources said. Gary Bauer, an evangelical Christian activist and Republican presidential candidate in 2000, said that he and like-minded evangelicals have campaigned vigorously in support of Israel and Sharon's tough policies. "I think we've had some impact," Bauer said.
Another conservative Republican with Christian ties who has made Israel a cause is House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Last April, speaking to a Jewish group in Washington, DeLay called Israel "the lone fountain of liberty" in the Middle East, and endorsed Israeli retention of the occupied territories. He referred to West Bank by the biblical names, Judea and Samaria, which are often used by Israelis who consider them part of Israel.
The Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said the White House and its political director, Karl Rove, know "how critical [evangelical] support is to them and their party," and know how strongly evangelicals support Israel. "We need to bless Israel more than America needs Israel's blessing," Land said, "because Israel has a far greater ally than the United States of America, God Almighty."
"This is not your daddy's Republican Party," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, who argues the administration is losing its ability to act as an honest broker in the Middle East by lining up with Israel. "There's a marriage here between the religious right and the neoconservatives," he said, referring to intellectual hard-liners such as Abrams and Perle, both of whom worked for Democrats before joining the Reagan administration.
Another political consideration involves Jewish voters, traditionally a Democratic constituency. Reed, the Georgia Republican chairman, said he saw a chance that Jewish voters, particularly younger ones, could begin moving to the Republican column in 2004 in part because of Bush's support for Israel. "There's clearly something going on -- it's tangible, it's palpable, and it could have a real impact," Reed said. Bush captured 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000; Reed said he could get 30 percent in 2004.
For now the Israeli-Palestinian issue is stalled. Many of those interviewed for this article said they expect no movement before the resolution of the Iraq issue. State Department officials confided privately that they feel sidelined, and that the debate inside the administration has ended, at least temporarily.
Diplomacy is now, at least nominally, in the hands of "the quartet" -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. Its members have drafted a "road map" outlining next steps toward a Mideast peace deal, including an end to violence and cessation of all settlement activity by the Israelis. In recent months Israel has sharply escalated settlement activity in the West Bank. In an interview with The Washington Post, Sharon recently dismissed the quartet as "nothing -- don't take it seriously."
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