Taza Khabre

Washington is rallying behind Israel, but a lasting consensus may prove elusive

Hamas’s stunning surprise attack on Israel has done what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never could – it has reunited fractious American politicians behind their nation. Somehow. For the most part. For now.

After years in which support for Israel has become an increasingly partisan issue in Washington, Democratic and Republican leaders in recent days have generally responded with broad condemnation of Hamas and expressions of solidarity after the slaughter of hundreds of Israeli civilians.

But that surface unity was already fraying around the edges by Monday as Israel retaliated with punishing airstrikes on Gaza, cut off food and water to the enclave and prepared for what could become a ground invasion that could further endanger Palestinian civilians. Some on the left wing of the Democratic Party have criticized Israel for its “apartheid” policy that oppresses the Palestinians and called for an end to US aid.

For now, such sentiments are confined to the fringes of the House Democratic caucus and have drawn swift rebukes from more centrist members of the party. The reality, however, is that sympathy and support for Israel will be tested the longer the fighting drags on and the more firepower Israeli forces use, according to lawmakers and political strategists. The challenge for President Biden and his allies is to translate the current anger against Hamas into a lasting consensus for Israel.

The sensitivity of that was clear through the mixed signals sent by Mr. Biden’s administration. The State Department’s Office of Palestinian Affairs posted a message on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, on Saturday calling on “all parties to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks,” and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s account posted a message on Sunday encouraging Turkey’s “advocating for a ceasefire”. Both posts were subsequently deleted after an outcry from Israeli supporters who said it was premature to call for Israel to withdraw.

Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken have otherwise insisted that Israel has the right to defend itself. The administration has begun shipping military equipment to Israel to replenish its stockpiles and moving U.S. warships and aircraft to the region to deter Iran or other enemies of Israel from escalating the fight.

In a written statement on Monday, Mr. Biden implicitly compared the Hamas strike to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. “We remember the pain of terrorist attacks at home, and Americans across the country are united against these evil acts that have once again taken innocent American lives,” he said. “It’s a shame. And we will continue to show the world that the American people are unwavering in our resolve to oppose terrorism in all its forms.”

With about 800 Israelis killed and 150 taken hostage, including women and children, administration officials agreed that Mr. Netanyahu had no choice but to respond with overwhelming force. Any country in the world would retaliate if its territory was invaded by land, sea and air, and its citizens massacred in concert or dragged from their homes to be shot or taken as prisoners.

For Mr. Biden and the United States, the fact that at least 11 Americans have been killed and an unknown number taken hostage makes it an American crisis as well. Hamas on Monday threatened to execute a civilian hostage every time an airstrike hits Gaza “on their homes without warning,” raising the stakes for Washington.

“I want you to know that in the United States Congress” right now, “there is unity, bipartisan unity in support of what we need to do, whether it’s military, whether it’s diplomatic, whether it’s financially to help our friends, the Israelis,” Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, former Speaker of the Democratic House, he said at a forum organized by a Jewish group in San Francisco on Sunday.

Representative Ro Khanna, another California Democrat, said Monday that the bipartisan support is real. “This is personal for many of my colleagues,” he said. “We know Israelis who have been killed and we know Americans who have stayed in the homes of Israelis who have been taken hostage. We are angry about innocent Americans being killed. There will be tremendous support for Israel to defend itself against this terrorist act, much like the world was united behind America after 9/11.”

But that doesn’t mean support is unlimited. The administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have largely supported retaliation against Hamas itself, but to the extent that the response punishes the civilian population of Gaza, an already impoverished coastal enclave blockaded by Israel and Egypt, it could decline support over time.

As of Monday, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza reported that 687 Palestinians, including 140 children, had been killed. Israel’s defense minister has ordered a “total siege” of the Gaza Strip, cutting off electricity, food, water and fuel to two million residents, and said his country is at war with “human animals”.

Palestinian advocates have complained about the largely uniform pro-Israel response in Washington. “There are few things that require less political courage in Washington than condemning the Palestinians, sending bombs to Israel and then turning our backs on confronting the root causes of the oppression that drives the political violence that threatens the lives of Palestinians and Israelis,” said Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine-Israel Program at Arab Center Washington DC

“People who truly care about peace and justice for all people see that,” he added. “Unfortunately, there is a shortage of them in this city.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a focal point in Washington for years, but since the days of President Barack Obama’s administration, the once traditional bipartisan consensus has evolved into a much more partisan divide.

Republicans have made support for Israel an unassailable litmus test issue. While in office, President Donald J. Trump leaned heavily on Mr. Netanyahu’s government, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, while slashing aid to the Palestinians and forcing their office in Washington to close. Democrats, for their part, have become increasingly divided, with some still staunchly supportive of Israel, while others have been more critical of the settlements, occupation and plans to annex the territory.

Mr. Biden is a case study. For decades as a senator, he positioned himself as a strong supporter of Israel, but his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu was at times quite frosty. Among other things, they have clashed over the prime minister’s efforts to curb the power of his country’s courts and US efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.

Mr. Biden met Mr. Netanyahu only last month for the first time since the prime minister returned to office in December, and even then on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly rather than at the White House. But the two appeared eager to put their differences aside, with the president hinting he would host the prime minister at the White House by the end of the year.

The president has offered nothing but unwavering support for Israelis since Saturday’s explosion of violence. In a statement on Monday, he said that “the American people stand shoulder to shoulder with the Israelis” and that the two nations are “inseparable partners” in the fight against terrorism.

Voices of dissent among Democrats came from representatives like Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American from Michigan, and Cori Bush, a liberal from Missouri. Ms. Tlaib wrote on Instagram that “I mourn the loss of Palestinian and Israeli lives” and added that the path to a just future “must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system that creates stifling, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.”

Mrs. Bush also mourned the loss of life on both sides and said statement published on X that he will “condemn in the strongest possible terms the targeting of civilians”. But she called for “an end to the US government’s support for Israel’s military occupation and apartheid.”

Other Democratic representatives, however, were angry. “I have no tolerance for their uninformed answers,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Jewish Democrat from New Jersey, said in an interview. He called such comments sick.

While he acknowledged that the duration and intensity of Israel’s response could have an effect, he added that the scale and scope of the Hamas attack made the calculus different from those of other eruptions between Israelis and Palestinians. “That includes the Americans,” he said. “It puts him in a whole different light. I don’t think there will be much sympathy for those weak estimators who are not focused on protecting our most important ally in the region and countering terrorists.”

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