Gaza, Biden, and an American Intifada

As Israel’s devastating Gaza invasion wears on, tensions between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are spiking, endangering the “special relationship” and promising political turmoil in both countries. Almost six months on, the conflict is now threatening to claim some unexpected casualties, such as the US-Israel relationship, whatever sympathy Israel enjoys in the international community, and just possibly Biden’s re-election. American voters—especially those who are young, and Democratic—are rising up in rebellion.

Growing anger in the progressive wing of America’s Democratic Party, and among Arab-American voters, resulted in an astonishing 100,000 people casting a protest vote for “uncommitted” in the otherwise largely uncontested Democratic primary in Michigan last month. Protests during Biden’s State of the Union address among members of his party and street demonstrators outside the Capitol sent an unmistakable signal of unrest.

Compounding Biden’s domestic political frustration is the intransigence of Netanyahu, who has rebuffed American cautions and recommendations at every turn, seeming to revel in his opposition to the president. The unreasonableness of Netanyahu’s Gaza strategy and vagueness of his postwar plans for the territory have only added to the administration’s frustration. Republicans seem to smell blood in the water and have cast themselves as the staunchest supporters of Israel, no matter what has happened or what is to come. The Biden administration’s abstention on the latest United Nations Security Council resolution vote calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza (which prompted the cancellation of a high-level delegation to Washington) will give them more ammunition on that front.

With November 2024 looming, this spells trouble for Biden’s presidential campaign. Who says foreign policy never matters in US presidential elections?

Biden’s Early Support for Israel Starts to Cost Him

Biden’s full-throated support of Israel in the early days and weeks after the Hamas assault of October 7 hit all the right notes for a US president. It was warmly appreciated in Israel and by Netanyahu, who had been looking for a lifeline to keep his tenuous political career alive. Biden’s position also enjoyed initial bipartisan support in the United States. But that has slipped as Palestinian casualties mount.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas onslaught, US public support for Israel increased significantly, according to a University of Maryland Critical Issues poll conducted with Ipsos.  That changed a few weeks later, however, as the dimensions of the Israeli response were beginning to sink in.

Change among young Democrats has been particularly notable: They are now twice as likely to view Biden as “too pro-Israel” than they were in October.  The number of those saying they would be less likely to vote for Biden because of his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue more than doubled since October, and those who want the United States to lean toward the Palestinians have measurably increased.

In February, Gallup polling likewise identified a significant drop in support for Israel. It noted that “young adults show the biggest decline in ratings of Israel, dropping from 64% favorable among 18- to 34-year-olds in 2023 to 38%. Middle-aged adults (those aged 35 to 54) show a smaller but still significant drop, from 66% to 55%.” A USA Today/Suffolk University poll in March found “a growing consensus even among older Americans that Biden needs to do more,” in particular to pressure Israel on a ceasefire. A Pew Research Center poll also conducted in February showed a much more closely divided American public, but echoed the theme that young Americans believe Biden is “unduly favoring Israel.” New Gallup polling data released March 27 made this all too clear: Fifty-five percent now disapprove of Israel’s military campaign, and only 36 percent approve, a sharp reversal from November. Interestingly, the poll also noted that about 74 percent of American adults are following the conflict “closely,” suggesting this is no marginal issue. The trend is unmistakable, certainly for American supporters of Israel but also for those who support Palestine, and it represents a growing headache for the Biden campaign.

The potential electoral ramifications of the Gaza issue were made very clear in the Michigan Democratic primary.

The potential electoral ramifications of the Gaza issue were made very clear in the March 2 Michigan Democratic primary, in which some 100,000 voters in the critical swing state cast a ballot for “uncommitted” rather than for Biden. This included 79 percent in majority Arab-American enclaves, particularly in Michigan’s Dearborn area. Efforts to reproduce this result were pushed in other states as well; in Minnesota, about 20 percent of voters also cast ballots for “uncommitted.” There were reasons other than Gaza for the protest vote, but there is no doubt that the administration’s handling of the conflict played a critical part. What will undoubtedly add to this estrangement between Biden and his supporters in the 2020 election is the latest $1.2 trillion spending bill passed by Congress and signed by the president that prohibits any Fiscal Year 2024 funding for UNRWA, the premier agency for helping Palestinian refugees. Younger voters in particular will be quick to note the evident hypocrisy of the president’s humanitarian concerns coupled with his decision to defund UNRWA. Arab-American campaign donors have made their anger with and sense of betrayal by Biden all too clear in private events with administration surrogates.

Turmoil in Congress

Growing outrage over Gaza among the Democratic base spilled into Congress early on and quickly assumed partisan outlines. Controversy erupted in late October after 15 House Democrats refused to vote for a resolution siding with Israel and condemning Hamas. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the lone Palestinian-American in Congress, was subsequently censured by the House in a largely party-line vote, in a resolution attacking her for “dangerously promoting false narratives” about the conflict.

This did nothing, however, to cow rising criticism of Israel’s war on Gaza in Congress or anywhere else, especially as the dimensions of human suffering became clearer. In early November last year, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) issued a statement affirming Israel’s right to defend itself and to “destroy the threat from Hamas.” But much of his statement excoriated Israel’s operations in Gaza, saying “they have not struck the right balance between military necessity and proportionality.” Murphy went on to note that “the current rate of civilian death inside Gaza is unacceptable and unsustainable.” The statement urged Israel to “shift to a more deliberate and proportionate counterterrorism campaign.” The admonition fell on deaf ears.

Then in December, several Democratic senators sent a lengthy and detailed letter to the White House focusing on the proportionality of Israel’s response, its use of American-supplied weapons, and what the administration was doing to ensure these were being used in accordance with international law. The letter posed 13 questions to the administration concerning Israeli measures to protect civilians, and what roles the Departments of Defense and State were playing to ensure that Israel does so. This was one of a raft of actions congressional Democrats took to try to engage the administration on Gaza in an effort to force accountability on Israel—and Biden.

En route to the State of the Union at the US Capitol, Biden’s motorcade was blocked by Gaza protesters: a portent of the political contest to come.

The Schumer Speech

All this was merely the curtain raiser for a major speech on March 14 by Senate Majority Leader      Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress and the highest-ranking Jewish official in the US government. Schumer criticized Netanyahu for being “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows,” adding that “Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah.” Schumer went on to call for new elections in Israel, saying Netanyahu “has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel….at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.” He made clear that “the Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7.” The speech was far more nuanced than most commentators gave him credit for, but the intent was unmistakable. The White House, tellingly, was aware of the remarks before they were delivered.

Negative Reaction Hardens Partisan Lines

Reaction was swift from the Israeli government and the Republican Party, which has wasted no time in trying to make support for Israel a wedge issue in the upcoming presidential election. In a briefing for Republican senators, Netanyahu condemned Schumer’s call for new elections as “wholly inappropriate.” Republicans in turn have embraced Netanyahu more tightly, seeing an electoral advantage among their aging conservative base. Netanyahu doubled down in his AIPAC speech in March, in official remarks full of implicit criticism of administration positions on the conflict and its aftermath.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, put it as crudely as possible in remarks on March 19. “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats,” he said, “hates their religion, they hate everything about Israel and they should be ashamed of themselves.” Many Jews would disagree.

Lack of Agreement on Solutions Fuels Tension, Political Combat

If the United States and Israel could find a common message and genuine agreement on a way forward, much of this political controversy could be tabled. Consensus on humanitarian solutions, a clear endgame to end the war and to deal with its aftermath, and identification of a diplomatic path forward—all this would calm much of the US-Israel spat and help both capitals present a united front to the international community that might command support. But fundamental differences between the United States and Israel on Gaza and the broader issue of a lasting Israel-Palestine settlement are likely to continue to worsen, as are disagreements over the crisis among Americans in this presidential election year.

Competing Visions: Full of Sound, and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Policy analysts of various stripes have sought to fill the gap, with influential (generally conservative) American analysts leading the way. Writing in the New York Times, Bret Stephens supported an Arab protectorate over Gaza, in which Gulf states would pay the tab for Israel’s war and assume political control over the territory. This assumes these Arab states would be willing to take on the major security and financial risks involved, with no binding commitments likely from the United States or other international actors, and of course ignores the Palestinians themselves.

A more detailed version of this concept was prepared by the Vandenberg Coalition, a right-leaning foreign policy initiative, which released a major report in cooperation with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). That plan advocates an international administration for Gaza, granting a prominent role to authoritarian Arab states in the territory’s political and economic reconstruction. It would be supervised by a “Trust Board” comprising     Arab powers and international actors that would, inter alia, oversee a “de-radicalization” program intended to reshape the politics of Palestinians in the enclave. This plan, like other schemes devised in Western capitals, appears aimed at divesting Gazans of any form of self-government in the service of Israel’s security interests, at ignoring the basic causes of “radicalization,” and at trusting that the Palestinians will go along in exchange for (historically inadequate) pledges of economic relief.

Compounding Biden’s domestic political frustration is the intransigence of Netanyahu.

The Biden administration has its own plan, of course, more or less, albeit lacking in many specifics. It involves a “revitalized Palestinian Authority” in Gaza with local remnants of Palestinian security forces and international enablers to provide tangible support. Biden continues to adhere in public to the chimerical “two-state solution,” without any evident negotiating blueprint on how to get there. Beyond that, the plan appears to lack many specifics on human services, reconstruction, financing, governance, and international participation. Critically, the role of the UN and its marshaling power is vague, perhaps due to Israeli misgivings, and this represents a vital gap.

Israel’s vision is even less clear. Publicly, it starts with the total defeat of Hamas, but after that it becomes far less detailed. It seems to depend upon a heavy post-war Israeli security presence, a buffer zone carved out within Gaza—against the stated objections of the United States—and the establishment of revitalized Palestinian collaborationist rule by anti-Hamas local clans, an echo of the failed “Village Leagues” strategy Israel adopted in the West Bank in the early 1980s. Missing from this vision is any concept of elected civil governance, a reconstruction plan to remediate the destruction Israel has visited upon Gaza, or, importantly, a concept for a political path to a final status settlement between Israel and Palestine. Instead, this vision looks more like a re-occupation—and a firm rejection of the preferred US two-state solution.

Humanity Lost

Events, meanwhile, continue to roll on the ground, as Israel’s offensive grinds up infrastructure and human beings alike. Netanyahu’s promised Rafah offensive threatens another displacement of approximately 1.4 million people, most of whom have been displaced before, and untold civilian casualties. Politicians, publics, pundits, and people on all parts of the international political spectrum contest the facts and the morals of this terrible war. But the fact that Gaza has now become a political expediency in US politics diminishes the humanity of those who are suffering. And that makes any reasonable solutions—diplomatic, humanitarian, or otherwise—that much harder to achieve.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Mike AZ