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CNN'S AMANPOUR

God's Jewish Warriors

Aired August 21, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

And this week, something special. A few years ago, I had the rare opportunity to spend almost a year traveling the world to report a series that we called "God's Warriors," illustrating in dramatic detail where religion and politics collide and sometimes explode to change the course of history.

Each night this week, I'll bring you these reports on Islam, Judaism and Christianity, because much of what we discovered remains so vital to the challenges that our world faces today.

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): Tonight we focus on God's Jewish Warriors.

Six days that changed history -- the 1967 Six-Day War. It put the heartland of Biblical Judaism under Israeli control. Hanan Porat wanted to make sure it stayed that way.

HANAN PORAT, ISRAELI RABBI, EDUCATOR AND POLITICIAN (through translator): We felt this was the time to seize the moment.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): He and a small group of religious activists began planning a return to the land his parents once farmed, a community called Kafar Atsion in the now occupied West Bank.

PORAT (through translator): We were returning home and fulfilling the prophecy.

AMANPOUR: But the Israeli government was divided -- trade the captured land for peace or keep it and build Jewish settlements? But would settlements even be legal?

In researching his book, "The Accidental Empire," Gershom Gorenberg discovered in Israel's archives these documents, marked "top secret." Written in September 1967 by foreign ministry lawyer, Theodor Meron, the memos are a warning that "civilian settlement contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects people living under occupation."

GERSHOM GORENBERG, HISTORIAN, JOURNALIST AND BLOGGER: It means that it violated international law.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But if Theodor Meron's legal opinion was correct, how is it that Israelis would build as many as 250 settlements and outposts in the middle of Arab land?

SHIMON PERES, PRESIDENT OF ISRAEL: The legal adviser of the foreign ministry doesn't tell us how to defend our lives.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): President Shimon Peres, one of Israel's longest serving and highest ranking politicians, initially supported settlements.

AMANPOUR: Are you saying Theodor Meron was wrong?

PERES: I don't know if he was right or wrong from a legal point of view. But he was wrong from a pragmatic point of view. Israel was under a steady attack all the time.

AMANPOUR: So just to help me understand this, for the Israeli leadership at the time, pragmatism triumphed over international law?

PERES: What you call pragmatism was, in our eyes --

AMANPOUR: You just said pragmatism.

PERES: Pragmatism in the sense of security, of defending our lives, yes.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): President Peres now says getting rid of most of the settlements is key to a lasting peace.

Israel's official position is that its settlements do not violate international law. It calls the West Bank disputed territory, not occupied, because, it says, it was never a recognized, independent country.

PERES: The real problem is you can call it pragmatic, you can call it legal. Was the war over? It was not.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Forty years later, we spoke to Theodor Meron, a Holocaust survivor who became one of the world's most respected authorities on international law. He stands by his top secret memos to the Israeli leaders.

THEODOR MERON, HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR AND INTERNATIONAL LAW EXPERT: You can justify a lot of things on grounds of security, but you cannot settle your population in occupied territories.

AMANPOUR: No doubt in your mind?

MERON: No doubt.

AMANPOUR: No wiggle room in the law?

MERON: Not really.

AMANPOUR: Certainly when somebody can present you the Torah, the Bible and say, look, this is our land, then any man-made law is in confrontation with God's law.

MERON: I cannot argue with the Word of God. Any lawyer can only discuss things from the secular perspective. In other words, I do not believe that the religion can resolve legal disputes.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But to religious activists, God's law trumped all others.

Hanan Porat went ahead with his plan to resettle Kafar Atsion. Sympathetic government officials downplayed it with a cover story that it was a legally authorized military post. And that's what the sign out front said.

PORAT (through translator): Everybody knew this was no military post. It was all just a show.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): So the settlers took down the sign and used it as a door mat.

PORAT (through translator): That tells you how we felt as people who were there as civilians and not as soldiers.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Another group of Jews went to Hebron and rented rooms in an Arab-owned hotel. It was just for a few days of religious study and to celebrate Passover -- or so they said.

PORAT (through translator): Are you asking me if they misled the government? There is no doubt it was a political trick.

GORENBERG: The people who led this effort made it very clear that the reason that they were doing it is that they wanted Hebron to remain under Israeli rule.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): When the Jews announced they were staying, this time Israeli officials worried there would be a confrontation with Hebron's Arab residents. The settlers eventually agreed to move, just outside the city -- temporarily. But over time, that temporary compromise became a permanent settlement -- Kiryat Arba -- population today, 7,000.

GORENBERG: The decision to let them stay was essentially a victory for the settlers and a defeat for those in the government who opposed the move.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): It would take another war in 1973 to transform the small band of settlers into a religious and political mass movement that would change the face of the Holy Land. This time, Israel fought an uphill battle after a surprise attack by Arab armies on the Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur. Even though victorious, Israelis now felt vulnerable.

KAREN ARMSTRONG, AUTHOR, "THE BATTLE FOR GOD": A certain complacency had set in after the 1967 victory in Israel.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Religious historian Karen Armstrong.

ARMSTRONG: Israelis thought they were invincible. This gave them a real shock and they felt acutely their isolation. And among the religious, it was felt that secular Zionism had failed.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): God's Jewish warriors claimed to have the solution -- an all-out campaign to settle the West Bank. Their movement took a name -- Gush Emunim, The Bloc of the Faithful.

One of the most faithful, Yehuda Etzion. When he saw this Israeli military base being built high on a West Bank hill, Etzion and his friends convinced the contractor to hire them. Then they moved into these dilapidated buildings near the job site. Using the name of a Biblical town in the Book of Joshua, they posted a sign, Ofra -- work camp.

AMANPOUR: Was it really a camp for workers?

YEHUDA ETZION, ACTIVIST, FOUNDER OF HAI VEKAYAM (through translator): That and more. We came here to build a settlement.

AMANPOUR: So you tricked them. You kind of lied about your intentions.

ETZION (through translator): I wouldn't call it lying. It was more like we got the land in a roundabout way.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Roundabout and, like the earlier schemes, effective. Ofra grew and so did popular support for the settlers.

GORENBERG: Remember, this is 1970s. This is at the same time that Islamic radicalism is rising in the Muslim world. It's the same time that fundamentalists are returning to politics in the United States.

Religion, which had been written off as a factor in the politics of the modern world, was suddenly returning to the political arena.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): In Israel, a right-wing leader named Menachem Begin was elected prime minister in 1977 on a platform of keeping what the religious believe was the Biblical land of Israel. It was a victory for God's Jewish warriors.

And at Ofra, a new sign went up -- "Keep Off the Grass." The settlers were here to stay.

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AMANPOUR: And last month, a panel called the Levy Committee recommended legalizing and increasing settlements. The U.S. immediately responded that it doesn't accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.

So why does it continue when the United States is Israel's biggest friend and financial backer? That story when we come back.

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AMANPOUR: Welcome back to our encore presentation of "God's Warriors." Despite the fact that most everyone agrees a final peace settlement between Israelis and the Palestinians will mean trading land for peace to form a two-state solution, that goal has seldom seemed further away.

Settlements continue to be built on land that Palestinians claim as their state. America continues to oppose it. But that hasn't stopped God's Jewish warriors.

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AMANPOUR: For decades, the U.S. has said Jewish settlements in the occupied territories are an obstacle to peace. So why not withhold America's generous foreign aid to pressure Israel? I asked former President Jimmy Carter.

AMANPOUR: America gives Israel $3 billion a year. No questions asked, just about. Why doesn't it say, OK, no more $3 billion?

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no way that a member of Congress would ever vote for that and hope to be re- elected.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): John Mearsheimer, a prominent political scientist at the University of Chicago, co-authored one of the most controversial essays of late, arguing pro-Israel advocates have too much influence on American policy.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: The lobby goes to great lengths to make sure that U.S. policymakers privilege Israel over the Palestinians.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The pro-Israel lobby he is talking about is a loose coalition of PACs, professional lobbyists and grassroots activists.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks. Thanks, Michael. Always great. Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Morris Amitay runs Washington PAC, which funds pro-Israel politicians. I spoke with him at his office in the same building where he once ran AIPAC.

AMANPOUR: Some might say this building became the most powerful arm of American foreign policy. More important than the Foggy Bottom -- the State Department.

MORRIS AMITAY, FORMER HEAD OF AIPAC: Not really. We're powerful because you have the Governor's Association here, the Attorney General's Association.

AMANPOUR: And AIPAC.

AMITAY: Empire State (ph) and you had AIPAC.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Amitay is an insider with more than 30 years' experience in what he calls the pro-Israel community.

AMANPOUR: How do you explain the fact that it is so powerful? The Jewish community in the United States is not huge, it is not massive.

AMITAY: No. I really don't think that we're that powerful. The way supporters of Israel present themselves to the administration and to the Congress is always in what is in the best interest of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To the right. A little bit that way.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): They are primarily secular organizations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our good friend, Senator Harry Reid.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But the lobby's political clout has helped the staying power of religious settlers in the West Bank.

MEARSHEIMER: The United States has never been able to put serious pressure on Israel to halt settlement building, and of course, the reason is because of the power of the lobby.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Except in 1991, when then President Bush did pressure Israel on the settlement issue, and a very public feud erupted with the lobby.

President George Bush and his secretary of state James Baker were trying to push Israel into peace talks with the Palestinians.

JAMES BAKER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): So the Bush administration took an unprecedented step: U.S. loan guarantees for housing in Israel would now come with strings attached.

BAKER: We will support the loan guarantees if there is a halt or an end to settlement activity.

AMANPOUR: Those were fighting words.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've heard today something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We have got one little lonely guy down here doing it, so --

AMANPOUR (voice-over): There were 1,000 lobbyists, many from the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC. Its annual convention in Washington sends members out to work the Hill.

On the issue of loans, Congress got the message.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We should stick with our friends.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA.: Just not the right or fair way to treat an ally.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: By forcing the fight, the president gets in the way of the peace process.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): President Bush vowed to stand firm.

BUSH: I'm not going to shift the foreign policy of this country because of political expediency. I can't do that and have any credibility worldwide.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But just a few months later, the very week of the Republican National Convention, the pro-Israel lobby had something to celebrate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Bush announced his support for the loan guarantees.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And to this day, no other administration has so publicly threatened to withhold financial support because of the settlements.

AMITAY: We have been able to promote strong, close U.S.-Israel relations.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): For Israel's friends on Capitol Hill, the pro- Israel lobby writes legislation, offers free trips to Israel and contributes money.

AMITAY: No real secrets. They do all the things that we're permitted to do in a democracy.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): As for political enemies, pundits still talk about the drubbing Senator Charles Percy took in 1984.

CHARLES PERCY, FORMER SENATOR: They pressured me. They threatened me.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Percy had supported selling high-tech military planes to another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia. Pro-Israel lobbyists spent millions to bankroll his opponent's campaign and Percy lost.

PERCY: Since then they've said they will Percyize senators that don't adhere to their policies.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Most recently, former President Carter was criticized for criticizing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians in his book, "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You are an anti-Semite.

CARTER: It is very difficult to speak publicly in criticism of Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So let me explain why I think you're a bigot, a racist and an anti-Semite.

CARTER: I've been publicly called anti-Semitic, even in four-page advertisements in "The New York Times."

MEARSHEIMER: I think they were not only trying to marginalize and silence Carter by smearing him, they were also sending a message to anyone else in the body politic who had thoughts about criticizing Israel.

AMANPOUR: Morris Amitay says he doesn't consider Carter or Mearsheimer anti-Semitic, simply misguided.

AMITAY: Promoting an agenda in which Israel is the bad guy. Basically the United States and Israel have the same goals in the Middle East: peace, prosperity, keeping terrorists out. I just think that the success of the pro-Israel community is the fact that they have good arguments on their side.

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AMANPOUR: A final thought when we return.

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AMANPOUR: And finally, we'll have more of "God's Jewish Warriors" later in the week. But tomorrow night, the focus shifts to God's Christian warriors, and while the last Crusade was fought 700 years ago, modern-day Crusaders in the United States still carry on the fight.

Their spiritual leader was the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who shaped a generation of evangelicals and helped decide more than one presidential election.

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): When Falwell became a minister half a century ago, America was very different. School days began with prayer and the right to abortion was not the law of the land.

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): Then came the social revolution of the 1960s and American lifestyles changed.

BRUCE LAWRENCE, DUKE UNIVERSITY: America in the '60s, it had a revolution of excess, where you had Elvis and you had drugs and you had sex at the same time that you had a very punishing foreign war -- the Vietnam War.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Religious historian Bruce Lawrence.

LAWRENCE: You saw all these other elements, both international and national, that seemed to portend a very dangerous and uncertain future, push people to look for other answers.

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AMANPOUR (voice-over): In 1973, the Supreme Court decision Roe versus Wade allowed the right to abortion and touched off a Christian counterrevolution.

FALWELL: And out of that Moral Majority was born.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): It would mean a sea change in American politics and in the courts.

FALWELL: When we started Moral Majority, we were novices. You could have gotten most of our preachers who were interested in public policy in a phone booth at the time.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): His movement transcended denominations.

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AMANPOUR: Falwell joined ranks with Catholics, Mormons and social conservatives.

By the 1980 presidential election, the Moral Majority mobilized millions of voters. And while Ronald Reagan needed almost no help in his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, with Falwell in the ring, 12 Democratic senators did lose their seats over issues like abortion.

FALWELL: We just got everybody registered. We got them to the polls. And they pulled an R for Reagan and went on down with Rs and 12 liberal senators went out of business.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Suddenly, conservative Christians had become a political force.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our Father...

AMANPOUR (voice-over): -- portraying themselves then and now as an endangered species whose values were under attack. Issues would be cast in moral terms. Faith and politics would become inseparable.

FALWELL: The press found us the next day. We had -- we were not on the radar -- named us the Religion Right, intending to be pejorative, but I sort of liked that.

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AMANPOUR: That's tonight's program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.

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