What Was Robertson Thinking?

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American television personality and evangelical Christian leader Pat Robertson during a pilgrimage to Israel in 2004.

Scour the Bible all you like for an apologetic prophet—one who publicly regrets having been "insensitive" to his audience—but you'll come up empty. Not so in today's world. Take Pat Robertson, Christian Right pioneer and host of the 700 Club. Last week, within a day of Sharon's massive stroke, the televangelist asserted that it had been God's punishment for leader's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip: "Here he's at the point of death. He was dividing God's land," said Robertson. "For any prime minister of Israel who decides he's going to carve it up and give it away, God says, 'No, this is mine.'" Robertson went on to cite a Biblical prophet, Joel, who he said "makes it very clear that God has an enmity against those who 'divide my land.'"

But unlike Robertson, Joel never followed up a week later by saying, "My zeal, my love of Israel, and my concern for the future safety of your nation led me to make remarks which I can now view in retrospect as inappropriate and insensitive in light of a national grief." Those were Robertson's words in a letter delivered to Sharon's son Omri yesterday evening, Israeli time. The letter, marked for hand delivery yet also posted on Robertson's website, also asked "the forgiveness of the people of Israel" and pleaded that "when I speak, it is always as a friend."

There are plenty of possible reasons for what Robertson's spokeswoman referred to as his "apology". Belated civility, humility and public-relations savvy come to mind. Robertson may also have been heeding criticism back in the States, some of the most scathing from fellow evangelical leaders who suggested that he is now a marginal figure—despite a television audience reported to be 825,000 strong. Richard Land, a key figure in the powerful and conservative Southern Baptist Convention, pronounced himself "appalled."

But equally crucial in jump-starting the preacher's path to apology may have been a sharp response by the Israeli government and the attendant threat to his leadership in a project he has worked hard to realize. Robertson, a leader in the evangelical branch that supports Israel's existence as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies anticipating Christ's return—hence his dismay at its "division"—has many interests there. Most notably, he is collaborating with the Israeli government and a group of evangelicals to build a $50 million Evangelical "heritage center" on the Sea of Galilee. Israel was to provide the land and infrastructure for the project, leaving the funding and the center's details to the evangelicals, of whom Robertson is the best-known. The arrangement is unusual, says Zev Chafets, who is now writing a book about the relationship between Jews, evangelicals and Israel and is a former spokesman for the late premier Menachem Begin. "In the past," he notes, "Israel has been extremely reluctant to turn prime land over to Christian organizations."

The promise of a lucrative partnership, however, helped to ease the reluctancy. Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson reportedly predicted it would draw as many as 1 million visitors and generate $1.5 billion annually. Robertson and Hirchson were supposed to attend the signing of a formal agreement within the next few weeks. That prospect evaporated after Robertson's remarks. Hirchson is a close friend of Sharon's and one of the founding members of his new Kadima party. The idea of sitting across from the man who had claimed God struck down is friend, says one party briefed on the issue, may have been "just too much." Tourism Senior Deputy Director General Rami Levi told TIME that this was first time the Ministry has stepped back from a deal with conservative Christians over a public position. He added that "I want to be clear that we are separating Robertson from other evangelicals—this is about one man." But regarding that man, Levi said that after Robertson's "outrageous statement" there was no choice. He promised that the heritage center project would move forward, but Robertson's departure would leave a fundraising gap.

On Friday, it seemed as though Robertson's repentance had been honored. Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Daniel Ayalon, reported the Associated Press, announced that "Israel respects Rev. Robertson and accepts his apology, which reflects his true friendship and support for the state of Israel."

Thus the rash TV pastor's pet project would seem to have survived his latest outburst. But his credibility among a watching public may be another matter. The day before the apology was accepted, the Southern Baptists' Land put it this way: "He was wrong, and he said hurtful things, and heís apologized for them, and thatís the Christian thing." But, Land continued, "Forgiveness is one thing and restoration is another. If I do something really stupid and wrong and I apologize for it, most will forgive me; but they will not be quite as trusting of my leadership in the future."