Israel said on Wednesday that it had suspended contact with the evangelist – casting doubt on plans for a Christian tourism center that would showcase the growing flow of money and influence from U.S. church groups.
The decision, announced by Israeli officials, does not spill over to other Christian groups that also consider it their spiritual duty to support Israel as fulfillment of biblical prophecy and for some as an essential step to bring Judgment Day.
Robertson apologized Thursday to the Sharon family and to the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon. Robertson was slated to meet with Ayalon on Friday to smooth the situation over.
Israeli leaders see the Christian allies as tireless lobbyists in Washington and elsewhere. The evangelicals also funnel millions of dollars each year to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and – before last year’s pullout – the Gaza Strip.
Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson said he gave instructions to “stop all contact” with groups associated with Robertson. Last week, Robertson implied that Sharon’s massive stroke January 4 was a blow for “dividing God’s land” with the withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements.
But Hirchson said the order did not apply to “all the evangelical community, God forbid.”
Robertson is leading a group of evangelicals who have pledged to raise US$50 million to build the Christian Heritage Center in Israel’s northern Galilee region, where tradition says Jesus lived and taught.
Under a tentative agreement, Robertson’s group was to put up the funding, while Israel would provide land and infrastructure. Hirchson had predicted it would draw up to 1 million pilgrims a year, generate $1.5 billion in spending and support about 40,000 jobs.
But the fate of the project is now in question, said Ido Hartuv, spokesman for the tourism ministry.
“We will not do business with him, only with other evangelicals who don’t back these comments,” Hartuv said. “We will do business with other evangelical leaders, friends of Israel, but not with him.”
In Virginia Beach, Virginia, a spokeswoman for Robertson’s ministry declined to comment on Israel’s decision.
“We have not talked to the Israelis on this topic,” said spokeswoman Angell Watts. “We continue to maintain our long-standing commitment to the Jewish people and the state of Israel.”
Robertson’s comments on Sharon drew condemnation from other Christian leaders and even U.S. President George W. Bush.
“God considers this land to be his,” Robertson said on his TV program “The 700 Club.” “You read the Bible and he says ‘This is my land,’ and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, ‘No, this is mine.”‘
The “Christian Zionist” movement began to take shape in the 19th century, but in recent decades it’s strengthened into a powerful force with deep pockets. Some estimates place the annual figure of evangelical aid to Israel at more than US$25 million. The Gaza withdrawal has become a new and potent rallying point.
In October, a group of Gaza settlers received a standing ovation from more than 5,000 Christians at Jerusalem conference sponsored by the International Christian Embassy, a private agency that promotes Christian ties Israel.
Robertson’s Christian Heritage Center is planned for 35 acres (14 hectares) of rolling Galilee hills near key Christian sites such as Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes, where tradition says Jesus delivered the Sermon of the Mount, and Tabgha – on the shores of the Sea of Galilee – where Christians believe Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fish.
Israel was considering leasing the land to the Christians for free.
Hartuv left the door open to continuing the project, but only with people who don’t back Robertson’s statements.
“We want to see who in the group supports his (Robertson’s) statements. Those who support the statements cannot do business with us. Those that publicly support Ariel Sharon’s recovery … are welcome to do business with us,” Hartuv said. “We have to check this very, very carefully.”