Joe Biden didn’t want to deal with Israel and the Palestinians when he took office. His foreign policy priorities were China and Russia, and to the extent that he was going to spend any time on the Middle East at all, it would be on nuclear negotiations with Iran rather than on long-festering and potentially unsolvable problems in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. But in addition to his foreign policy goals, Biden also understood that growing internal divisions within the Democratic Party would keep him from making any meaningful progress on Israel.
But as the violence between Israel and Hamas continues to worsen, it’s no longer possible for him to keep his distance. In the past, American presidents of both parties have spoken on Middle Eastern issues with the confidence that their country stood behind them. Now Biden must prepare to navigate the intractable politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knowing that not only do Democrats and Republicans disagree on how to move forward, but also that his own party is badly divided as well.
The scene on the floor of the House of Representatives last Thursday night was extraordinary, as the schism within the Democratic Party over Israel was on full display. One on side was the old guard, traditional establishment loyalists like Representatives Brad Sherman of California and Ted Deutsch of Florida reinforcing the importance of the Jewish state’s right to defend its citizens from terrorist attacks. They were followed by almost a dozen members of a pro-Palestinian vanguard that has emerged in the Democratic caucus. These younger and more progressive members condemned Israel’s actions and renewed their calls to condition U.S. military aid to Israel.
The following day, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont joined the fray with a New York Times opinion piece headlined “The U.S. Must Stop Being an Apologist For the Netanyahu Government,” in which he urged Biden to be more forceful in his criticism of Israel. Sanders’ op-ed reflected a growing and spreading dissatisfaction toward Biden’s approach to the crisis from his party’s left-leaning base, as familiar voices such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Congressional Progressive Caucus leader Marc Pocan have all criticized the Democratic president for “taking the side of the occupation.”
Since the violence broke out, Biden has maintained Israel’s right to defend itself and called for Hamas to cease its attacks. But he has also renewed his support for a two-state solution, and his White House has highlighted his decision to resume economic and humanitarian assistance to the West Bank and Gaza. Over the weekend, Biden told both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas of his intentions to help “the Palestinian people enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve.”
This doesn’t sound like a particularly one-sided approach to the matter. In fact, that type of language from an American president for most of Biden’s decades in Washington would have been somewhat jarring. But as James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute, happily but correctly observes: “The base of the party is moving in a very different direction than where the party establishment is.”
This doesn’t sound like a particularly one-sided approach to the matter.
That means that Biden’s support for Palestinian statehood, more than $200 million dollars in financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and the UN Relief and Works Agency, and affirming the importance of Palestinian dignity, opportunity and safety in a phone conversation with the prime minister of Israel isn’t good enough for a sizable number of Biden’s Democratic allies. And that means that his pressure on Hamas to stop bombing civilian targets in Israel is undermined by members of his own party here at home.
Nor can Biden afford to publicly confront the Democratic base over Israel. At precisely the time when he is working to build party unity to achieve his domestic policy goals, a fight in his own ranks over Israel does hm no good at all. That means the president will continue to tiptoe through this international emergency with the knowledge that many of the Democrats he needs for his economic growth package will be harshly critical of him for what they see as insufficient support for the Palestinians.
In last week’s column, I wrote about the growing generation gap over Israel among American Jewish voters. That divide has infiltrated Congress as well, and younger Democrats have made it clear that the historic level of U.S. support for Israel is no longer acceptable. Demography is destiny, and these trends will undoubtedly worsen before they get better.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.