Do Evangelicals Influence National Support for Israel – New Findings from Latin America

By Tom Ziv, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

[Image credit: https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5487286,00.html]

Many scholars and pundits in recent years have recognized the political influence of Evangelicals on the US political system regarding Middle East policies and especially policies involving Israel. The pro-Israel sentiment Evangelicals share has been documented and analyzed in several studies and surveys. All these, however, have two main weaknesses: first, they solely focus on the US Evangelical movement. Second, they do not analyze the actual effect of this support on national-level policies.

A recent article I published in Politics and Religion aims at addressing these two gaps. I analyzed the voting patterns of 18 Latin American countries in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) over 11 years in order to assess whether Evangelical support in the region, see below, shapes national attitudes towards Israel in a global context.

I also include in my analysis additional variables that may influence the level of support for Israel such as Trade with Israel, having an Israeli Embassy, Muslim Population, Jewish population, Armed Conflict with the Palestinians, GDP and Democracy level. The analysis provides several interesting insights.

First and foremost, I found that the size of the Evangelical population in a country positively affects the prospects of pro-Israeli voting in the UN General Assembly (see below). The existence of an Israeli embassy and a larger Jewish population were also found to have a positive impact on national support for Israel. However, the volume of trade with Israel and the size of the Muslim population did not affect the voting patterns of countries.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study was the insignificance of armed conflict as a determinant of support for Israel. In the period of 2008-2018, Israel and the Palestinians engaged in three rounds of military clashes: Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009), Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012) and Operation Protective Edge (August 2014). While there was a slight decline in the levels of support in the UNGA in 2014, levels of support increased in 2009 and 2012.

The Israeli-Palestinian military conflict seems to affect Latin American countries unevenly. In 2009, after Operation Cast Lead, Venezuela and Bolivia cut their diplomatic ties with Israel. However, these two countries had not voted with Israel even once in 2008 and never since. Conversely, the voting coincidence of countries such as Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica grew from 2008 to 2009. Overall, despite the armed conflict in these years, the average voting coincidence with Israel, in general, grew by 40% from 2008 to 2009. In 2012, after Operation Pillar of Defense, the voting coincidence with Israel grew by 50%. However, in 2014, after Operation Protective Edge, the voting coincidence dropped slightly by 1.5%.

*The lines represent times of armed conflict.

The Latin American Shift

Latin America’s religious landscape is changing. Traditionally a fully Catholic region, Latin America today consists of almost 20% Evangelicals (Pew 2014). This shift is manifested in the political arena. Evangelicals seem to have a tremendous influence especially in the poorer areas and “candidates are seeking the Evangelical votes” says Marta Lagos, director of the Latinobarometer (BBC 2019). Moreover, in a process similar to the one the Evangelical community went through in the United States, Evangelicals in Latin America have moved from being suspicious and detached from politics to being highly involved and influential politically. Today, Evangelical mayors, parliament members, ministers, and presidential candidates are very active in many countries in the region.

One of today’s most important “agendas for Evangelicals is support for Israel” (BBC 2019) And so Latin American attitudes towards the Jewish state, which were traditionally not so supportive, are changing as well. Evangelical support, however, is not confined only to UN General Assembly votes. Following the United States, the next two countries to move their embassies to Jerusalem were from Latin America: Guatemala and Paraguay (the latter has since moved its embassy back to Tel Aviv). Brazil, Honduras, and Colombia have opened different diplomatic missions in Jerusalem. In 2019, ten years after former president Evo Morales cut off relations with Israel, the new government in Bolivia has restored relations. In 2017, seven years after it cut off its relations with Israel, Nicaragua has also restored them.

On a different front, Honduras, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, and Guatemala all designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In addition, in eleven Latin American states, a pro-Israeli caucus consisting of legislators and ministries was established in local parliaments (IAF). Israeli Exports to Latin America have almost doubled from 2004 to 2018. Tourism to Israel from Central and South America more than tripled from 2004 to 2018. These trends perhaps cannot be solely explained by the growth of Evangelicalism in the continent, but the rise of Evangelical Christianity certainly encouraged them.

The Latin American shift towards Israel has not been ignored by the Israeli government. Former Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in 2020 that “we have no better friends than Christians who support Israel around the world” (Kresch 2020). In September 2017, Netanyahu made the first visit of a sitting Israeli prime minister to Latin America, visiting Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. This trip, he said, “marks a new era in relations between Israel and Latin America” (J-Post). In December 2018, Netanyahu also became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Brazil, in which he met with President Bolsonaro, President Piñera of Chile, and President Hernández of Honduras.

In sum, it is reasonable to assess that as long as the Evangelical movement continues to grow in Latin America, relations of Latin countries with Israel are expected to continue to improve.

The full article is available here: https://www.doi.org/10.1017/S1755048321000316.

Tom Ziv is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of International Relations of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He holds a B.A. in international relations and political science and an M.A. in international relations, both from the Hebrew University. His research interests include religion and foreign policy, diplomacy, transnational movements, and soft power.

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