Biden walks a tightrope in Israel and Gaza as Democratic tensions simmer

As President Biden visits Tel Aviv on Wednesday to show American solidarity with Israel amid escalating violence following the deadliest attack it has faced in 50 years, Democratic rifts over the conflict are beginning to open, leaving him presiding over a party struggling to sort out where stay.

The president’s trip and his broader preoccupation with the war presented him with both political risks and an opportunity to pump energy into a reelection bid that Democratic voters have been slow to embrace.

Biden’s staunch support for Israel after the attack on Hamas, which is by far the dominant position in Washington, won him plaudits from some Republicans as well as Democrats. An international crisis, even with its serious geopolitical dangers, is relatively comfortable political terrain for a president with deep experience in foreign policy.

While international issues rarely drive American elections, Mr. Biden and his allies will play the role of statesman abroad — especially if he can help defuse rising tensions — as a welcome change from the wide range of domestic challenges that are denting his approval ratings.

But at the same time, growing anger within his party’s left threatens to grow as Israel pounds Gaza with airstrikes and moves toward a potential ground invasion, with progressive Democrats accusing Mr. Biden of supporting a war that has already killed thousands of Palestinians.

Those emotions flared Tuesday after a deadly explosion at a hospital in Gaza City, with Israeli and Gazan officials blaming each other for the explosion. Protests erupted across the Middle East, Mr. Biden’s planned stop in Jordan was canceled and American politicians rushed to criticize the president even before the fog of war had cleared.

The anger and confusion made it clear how much Mr. Biden walking unsteadily.

“This is delicate for him,” said Representative Jasmine Crockett of Texas, a progressive Democrat who visited Israel this summer with a congressional delegation. “It’s a very fine line to walk and it’s a line that many of us as members, especially progressive members, find ourselves having to try to balance.”

While Republicans who surprisingly praised Mr. Biden’s response to the Hamas attack largely characterized the conflict as a black-and-white issue, things are more complicated among the Democratic Party’s progressive base.

Large segments of Democratic voters, especially younger ones, are skeptical, if not hostile, of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and are reluctant to support war, even in response to a Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis.

Dissatisfaction is visible in two documents of the past few days. the first, a letter signed Friday by 55 progressive members of Congress, called for the restoration of food, water, fuel and other supplies cut off by Israel in Gaza. others, resolution of the House with only 13 Democrats as co-authors, it demanded “immediate de-escalation and a cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”

Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who signed the letter but not the cease-fire resolution, said he received more calls from constituents in his Madison-based district who were concerned about Israel’s expected military response to the Hamas attack than the initial attack

Mr. Pocan said that he explained to the people that Mr. Biden and his top aides, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, have been privately pressing Israel to do more to spare Palestinian lives than they have expressed publicly.

“We’re asking people to kind of trust some of us who say and do the right thing,” Mr. Pocan said in an interview Tuesday. “I know how Joe Biden works. He probably says some things in private that are important and respect civilians. It may not broadcast everything it has up its sleeve. People just have to understand that it’s Joe Biden. He does not encourage indiscriminate bombing.”

But some Democrats have warned that if Mr. Biden becomes too attached to Israel, he will be blamed if many of the party’s voters believe that Israel has responded to Hamas with too much force.

Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the only Palestinian American in Congress, who was one of 13 Democrats to sign the cease-fire resolution, was among the first in her party to directly blame Mr. Biden for the war deaths after the Gaza hospital explosion.

“This is what happens when you refuse to facilitate a ceasefire and help de-escalate,” she wrote on social networks Tuesday. “Your approach to only war and destruction has opened my eyes to many Palestinians and Muslim Americans like myself. We will remember where you stood.”

Mark Mellman, founder and chairman of the Democratic Majority for Israel, dismissed the idea that Mr. Biden risks a breakup in his electoral coalition. If anything, Mr. Mellman said, Mr. Biden demonstrated his dynamism to voters who questioned his age and ability to hold office.

“It shows the level of energy, it shows the level of engagement,” he said. “It shows unparalleled diplomatic competence.”

Although Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign has not yet sent out fundraising appeals based on his actions in response to the conflict in Israel, the spectacle of his trip will not be lost on officials at the operation’s headquarters in Delaware. After Mr. Biden visited Ukraine, his the campaign produced great advertising called “War Zone”.

The White House believes that Mr. Biden is acting with the broad support of the American people in defense of Israel. Officials say those protesting Mr. Biden’s stance are not representative of much of the electorate — and that Democrats are unlikely to abandon Mr. Biden if it means helping former President Donald J. Trump.

While Mr. Biden, d interview on CBS “60 Minutes” on Sunday, while agreeing with Israel’s goal to eradicate Hamas, he said the group was not representative of the Palestinian people. Mr Blinken said on Tuesday that the United States and Israel had agreed on a plan to allow humanitarian aid to reach Gazan civilians.

“It is critical that aid starts flowing into Gaza as soon as possible,” Mr. Blinken said.

Among progressives, there is some hope that Mr. Biden’s trip to Israel will serve to de-escalate the conflict just as it appears poised to explode.

Larry Cohen, chairman of Our Revolution, a left-wing political organization that grew out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, said he hopes the visit will do just that.

“At this point, the US role is potentially helping the Palestinians as well,” said Mr. Cohen, whose work in the region dates back to a meeting with Yasir Arafat three decades ago to help workers trying to organize a union in the West Bank. “I believe Biden is going there in part to try to stop the carnage in Gaza, as well as to express his horror at the killings by Hamas.”

Polls show Americans are more confident in Mr. Biden’s ability to lead the country through the Israeli conflict than they are on domestic issues.

Quinnipiac University Poll released Tuesday found that 76 percent of voters believe supporting Israel is in the U.S. national interest. The survey found 42 percent approved of Biden’s handling of the Israeli conflict, compared to 37 percent who disapproved — an improvement on his overall approval rating, which the poll had put at 38 percent.

Younger and more active progressive Democrats seem less inclined to give Mr. Biden the benefit of the doubt. Quinnipiac found that a majority of voters aged 18 to 34 oppose sending weapons and military equipment to Israel.

Waleed Shahid, a strategist who once worked for the Justice Democrats, a group that sponsored left-wing primary challenges to Democratic members of Congress, said Mr. Biden’s embrace of Israel could drive young Muslim and progressive voters away from Mr. Biden and toward Cornell. West, an independent candidate for president who is running on a more explicitly anti-war platform.

“I’ve heard from several people in my life, people who worked for Biden in 2020, Jews and Arabs, who just from an ethical perspective don’t feel great about coming back to campaign for him,” Mr. Shahid said.

On Tuesday in Arizona, Vice President Kamala Harris was met with jeers from students after she echoed the Biden administration’s remarks that both Israelis and Palestinians “deserve peace, they deserve self-determination and they deserve security.”

One student yelled, “Stop making bombs.”

Ruth Igielnik contributed to the reporting.

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