Israel won't do business with Pat Robertson after the U.S. Christian Evangelist said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke was divine punishment for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, an official said Wednesday, placing a USD 50 million deal with the Christian leader in doubt.
Robertson, a Christian broadcaster, is leading a group of evangelicals who have collected money to build a Christian Heritage Center in Israel's northern Galilee region, where tradition says Jesus lived and taught.
Israel was to provide the land and infrastructure for the project, saying it would bring millions of tourism dollars into the country. But the project now is in doubt in light of Robertson's comments, said Ido Hartuv, spokesman for Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson.
"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."
A day after Sharon's stroke on Jan. 4, Robertson suggested it was punishment for "dividing God's land," a reference to Israel's August pullout from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.
"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."'
Robertson's comments infuriated Israel, and drew condemnation from other Christian leaders and even U.S. President George W. Bush. "We can't accept this kind of statement," Hartuv said.
The ministry's decision was first reported in Wednesday's edition of The Jerusalem Post.
Robertson's Christian Heritage Center was to be tucked away in 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. Hirschson predicted it would annually draw up to 1 million pilgrims who would spend USD 1.5 billion in Israel and support about 40,000 jobs.
Hirschson, however, is one of Sharon's biggest supporters, and a member of the centrist Kadima party recently founded by the prime minister.
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. "