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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden walks a tightrope on Israel-Gaza as Democratic tensions smolder

President Joe Biden arrives to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Biden traveled overnight to Israel. Polls show that Americans are more confident in Mr. Biden’s ability to lead the country through the Israel conflict than on domestic issues.

By Reid J. Epstein

As President Joe Biden visited Tel Aviv on Wednesday to demonstrate American solidarity with Israel amid escalating violence after the deadliest attack it has faced in 50 years, Democratic rifts over the conflict are beginning to tear open, leaving him presiding over a party struggling to resolve where it stands.

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

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

While international issues rarely drive American elections, Biden and his allies will see playing the role of statesman abroad — especially if he can help calm the soaring tensions — as a welcome change from a wide range of domestic challenges dragging down his approval ratings.

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

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

The anger and confusion made clear just how precarious of a tightrope Biden is walking.

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

While Republicans who have offered surprising praise for Biden’s response to the Hamas attack have largely cast the conflict as a black-and-white issue, things are more complicated among the progressive base of the Democratic Party.

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

The discontent has been evident in two documents in recent days. The first, a letter signed by 55 progressive members of Congress on Friday, called for the restoration of food, water, fuel and other supplies Israel had cut off to Gaza. Another, a House resolution with just 13 Democrats as co-authors, demanded “an immediate de-escalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”

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

Pocan said he had explained to people that Biden and his top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, were privately pressing Israel to do more to spare Palestinian lives than they were expressing in public.

“We ask people to kind of trust some of us who are saying and doing the right thing,” Pocan said in an interview Tuesday. “I know how Joe Biden operates. He’s probably saying some things privately that are important and respectful of civilians. He may not broadcast everything on his sleeve. People just have to understand that that’s Joe Biden. He’s not encouraging the indiscriminate bombing.”

But some Democrats warned that if Biden tethers himself too closely to Israel, he will get blamed if many of the party’s voters come to believe that Israel responded to Hamas with too much force.

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

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

Mark Mellman, the founder and president of Democratic Majority for Israel, dismissed the idea that Biden was risking a crackup in his electoral coalition. If anything, Mellman said, Biden was demonstrating his dynamism to voters who have questioned his age and ability to serve in office.

“It shows a level of vigor, it shows a level of engagement,” he said. “It demonstrates unparalleled diplomatic competence.”

While Biden’s reelection campaign has not yet sent fundraising appeals based on his actions in response to the Israel conflict, the pageantry of his trip won’t be lost on officials at the operation’s headquarters in Delaware. After Biden visited Ukraine, his campaign produced a gauzy advertisement titled “War Zone.”

The White House believes Biden is acting with broad support from the American people in defending Israel. Officials think that those protesting Biden’s position are not representative of much of the electorate — and that Democrats are hardly likely to abandon Biden if it means helping former President Donald Trump.

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

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found that 76% of voters thought supporting Israel was in the U.S. national interest. The survey found that 42% approved of Biden’s handling of the Israel conflict, compared with 37% who disapproved — an improvement on his overall approval rating, which the poll found was 38%.

Younger and more activist progressive Democrats seem less inclined to give Biden the benefit of the doubt. Quinnipiac found that a majority of voters 18 to 34 years old were opposed to sending weapons and military equipment to Israel.

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