Biden’s Narrowing Tightrope on Israel


The Iranian attack on Israel has heightened the fierce cross-pressures shaping President Joe Biden’s conflicted approach to the war in Gaza.

Throughout Israel’s military engagement, Biden has struggled to square his historic inclination to support Israel almost unreservedly with growing hostility in his party toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war. For months, Biden has been escalating his criticism of Netanyahu, but once the Iran attack began, the president snapped back to his instinct to rally behind Israel.

The barrage of missiles and drones that Iran fired at Israel on Saturday may have a similar short-term effect on slowing what has been a steady increase in congressional Democrats urging Biden to suspend offensive weapons sales to Israel until it fundamentally changes its strategy in Gaza. Yet, unless Israel and Iran descend into a full-scale confrontation, last weekend’s hostilities are not likely to end that pressure. That’s especially so because some of the same Democrats critical of Israel’s behavior in Gaza also believe the Jewish state was misguided to launch the air strike on senior officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria that precipitated the current exchange.

If the Iranian threat tilts Biden back toward his instinct to lock arms with Israel, it will widen the breach between him and the increasing number of Democrats who want a more fundamental break in U.S. support for the Gaza war.

Before Saturday’s attack, Biden faced greater division in his own coalition over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war than any other Democratic president has confronted on a foreign-policy choice in decades.

The Democrats who have preceded Biden as president over the past 50 years—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama—all faced discontent within their ranks over key foreign-policy decisions. But many veterans of previous Democratic administrations believe that none of those controversies generated as much sustained discord as Biden is now experiencing on three central fronts: criticism in Congress, disapproval in public-opinion polls, and persistent public protest.

“It’s very powerful when people who don’t ordinarily get involved in foreign policy do,” Ben Rhodes, who served as the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications under Obama, told me. “I don’t remember that happening in my administration or the Clinton administration. But now there has been a coalescence of real core pillars of the Democratic base that are just totally repelled by what is happening and a lack of pressure on Israel to change course. I can’t really think of anything like this.”

The current conflict hasn’t divided Democrats as badly as the second Iraq War, which began in 2003; former Senator Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq was one reason she lost the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination to Obama. But those internecine conflicts centered on how Democrats responded to the decision to launch the war by a Republican president, George W. Bush.

The breadth of public and congressional discontent over this conflict also doesn’t compare to the magnitude of party opposition that developed against Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. But although the current dissent doesn’t approach that historic height, it has exposed Biden to a distant echo of the charge from those years of supporting an unjust war.

Aides in the Biden White House and on his reelection campaign uniformly expressed optimism to me that, despite polls showing growing unease about the war among Democratic partisans, the conflict would not cost the president votes among people otherwise inclined to support him against former President Donald Trump. Not everyone in the party agrees that that optimism is justified. But many Democrats fear that even if Biden’s team is correct for now, the president’s political risks will only grow the longer the war persists.

“If it stops in three months, there is probably enough time” for Biden to recover, said one senior administration official, who asked for anonymity while discussing internal deliberations. “If it doesn’t stop in six months, we are going to really feel it.”

The fear among party strategists is not so much that Democrats discontented over Biden’s approach to the war, especially young people, will vote for Trump. He is even less likely to impose constraints on Israel, and his top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, has openly threatened to deport pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Instead, the concern is that with many younger voters already unenthusiastic about Biden, his handling of the war will provide them with another reason to choose a third-party candidate or to simply not vote at all. “I think it has complicated Biden’s current standing with young people,” Ben Tulchin, who served as the lead pollster in both of Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, told me. “It’s just one more thing he is going to have to mend fences on. The hope is, in six months from now, the temperature gets turned down.”

The discontent among Democrats about the war and Biden’s approach to it is mounting across all three measures of dissent.

The first is in Congress. After the Israeli missile strikes that killed workers from the World Central Kitchen, a group of 56 Democratic House members sent Biden a letter urging him to suspend the transfer of offensive weapons to Israel until an independent investigation into the attack is completed. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a centrist who served as Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee in 2016, earlier this month also called on Biden to stop the transfer of “bombs and other offensive weapons that can kill and wound civilians and humanitarian aid workers.”

Earlier this year, a group of 19 Democratic senators led by Chris Van Hollen of Maryland filed a bill that could have restricted U.S. military aid to Israel. To defuse the threat, the Biden administration issued a national-security memorandum establishing a new process for assessing whether Israel, and other countries receiving U.S. military aid, are using the weapons in accordance with international law, and also cooperating in the distribution of humanitarian aid provided either directly by the United States or by international organizations it supports. If that report, due on May 8, finds that Israel has failed to meet those standards, it could encourage more Democrats to demand that Biden suspend the transfer of offensive weapons.

“There is growing frustration with the pattern of the president making reasonable requests and demands, and the Netanyahu government mostly ignoring them and doing so with impunity, in the sense that we send more 2,000-pound bombs,” Van Hollen told me. “I think there are a growing number of senators who agree we can make more effective use of all the policy tools at our disposal. Our approach cannot be limited to jawboning Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

In the near term, the Iranian attack may inhibit more Democrats from demanding a suspension of offensive weapon transfers to Israel, such as the F-15-fighter-jet sale to the Jewish state that Biden is lobbying Congress to approve over resistance from some party leaders. (Iran’s assault highlighted the difficulty of distinguishing between offensive and defensive weapons; two squadrons of American F-15s helped intercept the Iranian attack.) But several Democratic opponents of the arms transfers issued statements this weekend reaffirming their position. In one of those, Van Hollen said Sunday that although the U.S. “can and should continue to replenish” the defensive systems Israel employed against the Iranian barrage, “the Biden Administration should use all the levers of its influence to” sway the Israeli decisions on Gaza; that’s clear code for indicating Van Hollen believes Biden should still threaten a suspension of offensive weapon transfers.

Public-opinion polls offer another vivid measure of Democratic discontent over the war and the U.S. approach to it. In a recent national Quinnipiac University poll, almost two-thirds of Democrats said they opposed sending further military aid to Israel. In a CBS News/YouGov national poll released Sunday but conducted before Saturday’s hostilities, most Democrats wanted the U.S. to support Israel if Iran attacked it. But two-thirds of Democrats again opposed weapons transfers to Israel for the war with Hamas, and nearly half said Biden should push Israel to entirely end its military action; another fourth of respondents said he should encourage it to wind down the campaign.

These negative opinions about the war, and Biden’s approach to it, have been especially pronounced among younger voters. That points to a third central measure of dissension within Democratic ranks: widespread campus-based protests. One telling measure of that challenge for Biden came earlier this month, when the president of the University of Michigan issued new policies toughening penalties against disruptive campus protests.

The fact that the leading university in a state that is virtually a must-win for Biden felt compelled to impose new restrictions on protest underscored the intensity of the activism against the Gaza war. Protest “has been pretty persistent since October,” Ali Allam, a University of Michigan sophomore active in the TAHRIR coalition leading the campus protests, told me. “I don’t know very many people who are planning on voting for Biden, because they have seen time and time again, he is a person who says, ‘We’re concerned about the situation,’ and yet he continues to sign off on providing more and more weapons. And that is just not something young people are willing to get behind.”

Michigan is a somewhat unique case because of the state’s large Arab American population, which provides an especially impassioned core for the protest movement. But the student hostility to the war has extended to a broad range of left-leaning younger voters that Democrats count on. In Michigan, for instance, some 80 campus groups are part of the TAHRIR coalition, including organizations representing Black, Latino, Asian, and Jewish students, Allam said. Ben Rhodes, who now co-hosts a popular podcast aimed primarily at liberal young people, Pod Save the World, sees the same trend. “It’s not just Arab and Muslim Americans in Michigan, or foreign-policy lefties,” he told me. “It’s this kind of mainstream of the young part of the Democratic coalition.”

As Biden advisers point out, the other recent Democratic presidents also provoked internal opposition in Congress or in polls to some of their foreign-policy decisions. But it’s difficult to identify an example under Carter, Clinton, or Obama that combined all three of the elements of Democratic discontent Biden is now facing.

Probably the most controversial foreign-policy decision of Carter’s presidency, for instance, was his support for the treaty ceding control of the Panama Canal back to Panama. That produced a heated and lengthy public debate, but the conflict was fought out mostly against conservative Republicans led by Ronald Reagan: In the end, just six Senate Democrats voted against the treaty.

The principal foreign-policy controversies of Clinton’s presidency revolved around his anguished decisions on whether to intervene in a series of humanitarian crises. After an early military action in Somalia went badly (in the events depicted in the book and movie Black Hawk Down), a chastened Clinton stood aside as a horrific genocide unfolded in Rwanda in 1994. Clinton also wavered for years before launching a bombing campaign with NATO allies in 1995 that ultimately produced the peace treaty that ended the Serbian war in Bosnia. Later, Clinton launched another bombing campaign to end Serbian attacks in Kosovo.

Although neither party, to its shame, exerted any concerted pressure on Clinton to act in Rwanda, he did face congressional demands to more forcefully intervene in the Balkans. Shortly before the 1995 bombing campaign, both the House and the Senate approved legislation essentially renouncing Clinton’s policies in Bosnia, and almost half of Democrats in each chamber voted against him. But the issue did not provoke anything near the public activism now evident on the Israeli war in Gaza, and even in Congress, the issue scrambled both parties. Many Democrats from all of the party’s ideological wings shared Clinton’s caution.

“I don’t think domestic opinion per se affected” Clinton’s choices about the Balkans, James Steinberg, who served as his deputy national security adviser, told me. “There were Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue. It was more Clinton’s own feeling about responsibility, leadership, and America’s role in the post–Cold War world.”

Obama faced intermittent discontent among some Democrats over his major foreign-policy choices, including his “surge” of additional military personnel into Afghanistan and his plans for air strikes during the Syrian civil war. But none of these generated sustained resistance across all three of the fronts now challenging Biden. Nor did many Democrats dissent from what was probably Obama’s most controversial foreign-policy move—the treaty he reached during his second term to limit Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. In the end, just four Senate Democrats voted against approving the pact.

The Democratic unity behind the Iran agreement was notable because it came despite an intense lobbying effort against it from AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel group in the U.S., and Netanyahu himself. In an extraordinary intervention into U.S. domestic politics from a foreign leader, Netanyahu, who was also Israel’s prime minister then, delivered a speech to Congress opposing the deal at the invitation of congressional Republicans.

Netanyahu’s long history of aligning closely with U.S. Republicans and conflicting with Democratic presidents meant that few Democrats began the Gaza war with much confidence in him. Many Democrats have also been outraged by Netanyahu’s efforts to eviscerate judicial review of government actions in Israel, which has drawn comparisons to Trump’s efforts to weaken pillars of U.S. democracy. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that just one in 20 Democrats have a favorable impression of Netanyahu.

Biden initially insisted that his best chance to influence Israel’s policies was to wrap Netanyahu in a “bear hug.” But given all this history, many Democrats outside the administration viewed that strategy as doomed from the start.

“The administration’s initial approach seemed to be based on the belief that the best way to maintain influence with the Israeli government was to sympathize with their objectives and be inside the discussion rather than outside the discussion,” said Steinberg, who also served as deputy secretary of state for Obama and is now the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But everything that has happened over the past months reinforces the view that, with Netanyahu, that strategy counts for little.”

Over the past several months, as the devastation inside Gaza has mounted and Netanyahu has openly dismissed Biden’s calls for a two-state solution after the fighting, the president has significantly intensified his public criticism of the Israeli prime minister. When I asked the senior administration official whether Netanyahu has exhausted whatever goodwill he possessed when the war began within the administration and with Democrats in Congress, the official replied, “It’s awfully close.”

But Biden has so far refused to match his critical words for Netanyahu with concrete consequences. Administration officials point out that the ongoing arms transfers to Israel are primarily occurring under a long-term arms deal approved during the Obama presidency. And they note that providing Israel with sophisticated weaponry advances U.S. strategic interests in deterring Iran—an argument that gained relevance after Saturday’s Iranian barrage. The October 7 attack also provoked genuine outrage across the American political spectrum and cemented a broad bipartisan conviction that Israel is justified in seeking to disable Hamas.

But many of the national-security experts I spoke with argued that Biden’s reluctance to push harder against Netanyahu also reflects the fact that the president formed his fundamental vision of Israel decades ago, when the country was an underdog besieged by larger neighbors, which is no longer the way many Democrats see the nation. “This is a generational issue, and in Biden’s head, he’s of the kibbutz generation,” Jeremy Rosner, a senior adviser at the National Security Council under Clinton, told me. “I don’t think it was tactical on his part, how he responded, or political; I think it was heartfelt.”

The rising tension with Iran will likely delay a reckoning between Biden and Netanyahu over Gaza. But it will grow only more difficult for Biden to avoid a deeper breach with the Israeli government around the war. For instance, the administration probably won’t be able to avoid sharp criticism of Israel in the May 8 report to Congress. Senator Van Hollen says the report cannot credibly claim that Israel has met the required performance for allowing the distribution of international aid over the duration of the war, even if it is now allowing in more shipments after Biden’s stern phone conversation with Netanyahu about the deaths of the World Central Kitchen workers. “If anybody suggests that the Netanyahu government has met the standard [on facilitating humanitarian aid] for the last many months, it would be hard to have any confidence in that conclusion,” Van Hollen told me.

A larger inflection point is looming over Rafah. Netanyahu has insisted that Israel is still planning a full-scale military operation in the last major Gaza civilian center that it has not invaded; Biden has urged him to instead use only more surgical military missions against Hamas leadership and, in an MSNBC interview last month, called an all-out attack of Rafah a “red line” that Israel should not cross.

Yet in that interview, Biden sent mixed signals about what consequences, if any, he would impose if Netanyahu crossed that line. Likewise, administration officials have remained vague about what penalties, if any, they will impose if they judge that Israel has failed to meet the performance standards mandated in the May 8 report.

Biden has no simple political choices on the conflict. In polling, about one in four Democrats consistently express support for Israel’s conduct of the war—roughly that many in the party, for instance, said in the Quinnipiac poll that they support more military aid to Israel and, in recent Pew Research Center polling, said that they view the Israeli government favorably. Biden might alienate some of those voters if he imposes more constraints on Israel. The veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, the president of the pro-Israel group Democratic Majority for Israel, recently argued to Politico that if Biden took a harder line on the war, he would lose support not only among voters who strongly back the Jewish state but also from others who would view him as weak for reversing direction under political pressure.

Any move to limit arms sales to Israel would also draw intense attacks from Republicans, who seized on the Iranian barrage to denounce the Democratic criticism of Israel over Gaza. “Get behind the Israeli government,” Republican Representative Mike Lawler of New York insisted on CNN while the attack was under way.

Yet the political risks to Biden of staying on his current course are also apparent. Already, a clear majority of the Democratic base disapproves of Israel’s conduct of the war. The number of Democratic voters and elected officials critical of the invasion is likely to grow as the conflict persists—particularly if Israel continues to employ the same harsh tactics. As the senior official told me, the administration expects that “if there isn’t a cease-fire and this thing drags on and there isn’t a dramatic change in the ways the Israelis operate, the erosion” in Democratic support for Biden’s posture toward the war “is going to continue.” Even among independent voters, Israel’s position has dipped into the red: In a recent Gallup survey, independents by a ratio of 2 to 1 disapproved of the Israeli military action, and in Sunday’s CBS News/YouGov poll, the share of independents who said the U.S. should no longer send arms to Israel was nearly as high as the percentage of Democrats.

Biden’s team still holds out hope that, partly because of his tougher tone, Israel will agree to a cease-fire with Hamas that in turn could unlock a broader agreement for normalization of Israeli relations with Saudi Arabia that includes steps toward negotiating a Palestinian state. Such a transformative deal could erase much of the discontent among Democrats about Biden’s approach to the war.

But with Hamas displaying even more resistance than Israel to another cease-fire, such a sequence of events seems very distant. (The unprecedented step of Iran launching attacks from its own territory into Israel might encourage Saudi Arabia and other regional adversaries of Tehran to consider aligning more closely with Israel and the U.S., but the overall increase in regional tensions may not be conducive to an immediate diplomatic breakthrough.) This means the most likely prospect in the coming weeks is for more fighting and more civilian suffering in Gaza that exacerbates the tensions inside the Democratic Party over the war.

“This can get worse,” Rhodes said. “I don’t think people have their heads fully around that, because what’s already happened feels extreme. But if the current status quo continues for another couple of months, where there is an Israeli military operation in Rafah and there are extreme restrictions on aid getting in, we are going to be looking at a much worse situation than we are today.”

If the administration’s months of support for Netanyahu on the Gaza war ultimately costs Biden support in November, then the president’s failure to break from a right-wing aspiring authoritarian in Israel may doom his effort to prevent the return to power of a right-wing aspiring authoritarian in America.

[colabot2]

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