Over the past several years, the Democratic Party has moved further left on US policy toward Israel, showing a greater willingness to criticize Israel and speak up in defense of the rights of Palestinians.
But President Joe Biden doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. And that gap between him and the more progressive members of his party is becoming a visible rift as the Biden administration struggles to address the escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
The recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, has so far left at least seven people in Israel dead from Hamas rockets and around 70 Palestinians, including 16 children, dead, more than 300 injured, and entire apartment buildings flattened in Gaza from Israeli airstrikes.
The Biden administration has firmly and publicly denounced Hamas for firing rockets indiscriminately at civilians in Israel. Yet it has refused to say a single harsh word to Israel publicly for its precision bombing of civilian targets in Gaza, instead repeating the constant refrain that “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
A summary of National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s Tuesday call with his Israeli counterpart said that “He conveyed the President’s unwavering support for Israel’s security and for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, while protecting civilians.”
That kind of unwavering defense of Israel wouldn’t have ruffled many feathers in the Democratic Party 20 or maybe even 10 years ago. But times have changed. The party has changed. And now it’s doing more than just ruffling feathers.
“By only stepping in to name Hamas’ actions — which are condemnable — & refusing to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians, Biden reinforces the false idea that Palestinians instigated this cycle of violence,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted on Wednesday. “This is not neutral language. It takes a side — the side of occupation.”
This is becoming a problem for Biden, who promised to put human rights at the “center” of his foreign policy. Instead, he’s finding himself calcified in the US-Israel policy of yesteryear, while his left flank on Israeli-Palestinian issues becomes ever more vocal.
“It is splitting the party,” a Democratic Senate staffer told me. “It’s splitting between those who think support for human rights includes Palestinians and those who don’t.”
Congressional Democrats are more willing to criticize Israel than Biden is
Biden is standing still as his party is moving on this issue.
In March, a Gallup poll showed that 53 percent of Democrats favored placing more pressure on Israel to make compromises to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a 10-point jump from 2018, and 20 points higher than in 2008.
That finding tracked with poll after poll showing liberal Democrats are less sympathetic to Israel than they were in years past, although most Americans still say they support Israel and America’s alliance with it.
Why the change? Much of it has to do with former President Donald Trump’s favoritism toward Israel.
Trump gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly everything he wanted, including recognition of Israeli sovereignty over disputed territory like the Golan Heights, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and a “peace plan” that fulfilled nearly all of the premier’s wishlist. Meanwhile, Trump closed a Palestinian political office in Washington, DC, stopped aid to the West Bank and Gaza, and effectively cut ties with top Palestinian officials.
As a result, Israel went from receiving broad bipartisan support to seeing concerns over its actions split along partisan lines. “Donald Trump politicized US support of Israel,” said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and a former national security adviser to then-Sen. Kamala Harris.
That’s why you see congressional Democrats with more willingness to lambast Israel.
Take Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a close Biden confidante who fashions himself one of Israel’s strongest supporters in Congress. He used a Twitter thread to denounce Hamas’s rocket attacks but also called out Israel for the attempted evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and other provocations.
I urge all parties to exercise restraint and call on Israeli and Palestinian officials to de-escalate tensions, refrain from further provocations, and renounce the violence immediately.
— Senator Chris Coons (@ChrisCoons) May 10, 2021
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), a Jewish lawmaker and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, also issued a statement criticizing aggression by Israeli authorities last week that helped trigger the current conflict: “I remain deeply concerned by the violence in Jerusalem, including Israeli police violence, and I urge all parties to exercise restraints.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East panel, told me “it’s important for members of Congress to acknowledge that over the last few years, both the Palestinians and Israelis have taken a bunch of steps to make a two-state future less likely and create cultures of grievances.”
Instead of making a big deal out of noting the Palestinian plight or finding ways to punish Israel, though, he said the goal is to seek deescalation. “We’re in the middle of a nightmare right now. People are dying,” he said. Once the crisis is over, then it makes sense to have a broader policy discussion about America’s stance toward Israel.
But given the way the administration is acting so far, it doesn’t look like it wants to have that discussion at all.
Biden has yet to say anything about the Palestinians
The Biden administration rejects accusations that it’s taking only Israel’s side or that it’s standing pat as rockets and bombs rip through civilian buildings in Israel and Gaza.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said US officials “have spoken candidly with Israeli officials about how evictions of Palestinian families who have lived for years, sometimes decades, in their homes and of demolitions of these homes work against our common interests in achieving a solution to the conflict.”
The next day, she told reporters US officials had held 25 high-level calls and meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as other regional governments with stakes in the conflict. “So our engagement is, a lot of it is happening privately through diplomatic channels,” she said, “and our objective here is deescalation as we look to protecting the people in the region.”
That’s all well and good, experts say, but they say it’d be better if Biden came out and showed support for Palestinians himself. “I think it’s reached a point where that might not be a bad idea,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel advocacy group J Street, after I asked him about the president’s silence. But Ben-Ami added, “he’s not going to focus on this day in and day out.”
At a minimum, they’d like to see Biden do something — anything, really.
For the moment he has yet to appoint a special envoy for the peace process or an ambassador to Israel, though a State Department official is headed to the region to speak with regional leaders. Psaki said Wednesday that the president will name someone to the ambassadorial post in the “coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, Biden has barely reversed Trump’s actions against the Palestinians, except for restoring aid to refugees. When the US acted recently, it was to block a statement by the United Nations Security Council on the conflict. “The US doesn’t see that a statement will help de-escalate,” an unnamed diplomat told AFP on Wednesday.
There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency in the administration. Congressional aides and activists who have recently spoken to the White House told me the attitude of Biden’s team is “there’s a lot going on right now.”
In all fairness, there is.
Biden is still contending with the Covid-19 pandemic at home and now looking to quash it abroad, all while trying to push trillions in domestic programs through Congress. Blasting Israel could harm his standing with Republicans.
Biden also has diplomats negotiating America’s reentry into the Iran nuclear deal, a pact Israel hates and might speak openly against if the president publicly denounces Jerusalem.
What’s more, the US is far from being the only outside influence over the crisis.
Ilan Goldenberg, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian issue at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, DC, tweeted on Wednesday that “The key mediators in this conflict and the ones with real leverage with Hamas and a close relationship with the Israelis are the Egyptians. Ultimately this round of violence will most likely end with an agreement in Cairo,” not the White House.
Between those considerations and Biden’s more traditional view of the US-Israel relationship, it’s possible the president simply wants to stay out of the fray.
But that’s concerning, as most say a clear statement from Biden — denouncing Hamas’s attacks but also noting Israel’s complicity in the violence — might get Jerusalem to consider deescalating this crisis. After that, Biden could hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses with the same vigor as his team does Hamas and other Palestinian leaders.
His silence on that front — for now, at least — has consequences.
“The permanent occupation of Palestinian territory by the state of Israel, and millions of people in the occupied territory, held for decades and generations without rights remains an unsustainable situation,” said J Street’s Ben-Ami. “That will lead to these regular outbreaks of violence if there is not an effort consistently made to, at a minimum, prevent the situation from getting worse.”