WASHINGTON – The deadly violence in Israel and Gaza isn’t just an urgent foreign policy crisis for President Joe Biden. It’s also a fraught political debate in Washington, with Democrats increasingly divided over America’s traditional support for Israel.
Biden is under mounting pressure from progressives to offer stronger support for the Palestinians, who were sidelined during much of the Trump administration. The U.S. has consistently supported Israel economically and militarily since its founding.
“The movement for a more balanced U.S. policy that is pro-Israel, pro-peace, anti-occupation … has grown significantly over the past few years, and it’s become a major force in the Democratic Party,” said Logan Bayroff, communications director for J Street, a left-leaning Jewish advocacy group.
Tensions among Democrats heightened Monday morning after The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration approved $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel. Members of Congress were notified of the sale on May 5. It is just a fraction of the more than $3 billion in annual security assistance the United States sends to Israel.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and some Democrats have taken aim at the aid, saying it needs to come with strings attached.
“We can no longer be apologists for the right-wing Netanyahu government and its undemocratic and racist behavior,” Sanders wrote in a New York Times opinion piece. He said it’s illegal for U.S. aid to support human rights violations.
“For years we have seen a deepening Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a continuing blockade on Gaza that make life increasingly intolerable for Palestinians,” Sanders wrote.
Calling for a cease-fire
The White House needs to focus first and foremost on helping to broker a cease-fire, Bayroff said. That effort got a major boost on Monday when 29 Democratic and independent senators led by Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., issued a joint statement.
“To prevent any further loss of civilian life and to prevent further escalation of conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories, we urge an immediate ceasefire,” they said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked Monday why Biden has not publicly called for a cease-fire.
“Our calculation at this point is that having those conversations behind the scenes … is the most constructive approach we can take,” she said. “Our approach is through quiet, intensive diplomacy.”
The U.S. blocked for the third time what would have been a unanimous statement by the U.N. Security Council expressing “grave concern” over the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the loss of civilian lives, frustrating U.S. allies and progressive lawmakers.
Biden and his national security advisers have emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly noted that Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group, is firing rockets at Israeli civilians. He has not given as much rhetorical attention to the spark that ignited the conflict: an effort by Jewish settlers to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem.
That has led to searing criticism from liberal Democrats in Congress. They note that Palestinian civilians living in Gaza have borne the brunt of the deaths in this conflict. At least 200 Palestinians have been killed in the week of airstrikes, including 59 children and 35 women, and about 1,300 people have been wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Ten people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier, have been killed in the rocket attacks launched from civilian areas in Gaza toward civilian areas in Israel.
Biden has long cast himself as a staunch defender of Israel, a position reflected in his statements on this conflict.
In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Biden reiterated his “firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks,” according to a White House readout of the conversation. In a slight shift, the White House also said Biden “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians” and “expressed his support for a ceasefire.”
Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly partisan in US
Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at the State Department during the Obama administration, said Israel has become a more partisan issue – in part because of Netanyahu’s full-throated embrace of the GOP and his hostile relations with the White House during the Obama administration.
There is also, he said, a growing and increasingly vocal minority within the Democratic Party that wants the U.S. to play a different role in the conflict.
“It becomes a very tough sort of political balance for the administration to strike for a Democratic administration to strike on an issue that’s increasingly divisive inside the party itself.”
He said there is still a very strong pro-Israel contingent in the Democratic Party, but there’s a sense that lawmakers can be pro-Israel and oppose Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement policies, which have squeezed the Palestinians into ever-shrinking territory.
Democrats say Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza conflict undermines his pledge to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy.
“You aren’t prioritizing human rights. You’re siding with an oppressive occupation,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., posted in a tweet last week after the White House issued the readout of Biden’s call with Netanyahu.
Bayroff said J Street wants the White House to ensure none of the U.S. security assistance to Israel is used to fund equipment or other items that Israel deploys for settlement expansion, home demolitions or other activities “that are entrenching occupation and making this conflict worse.”
And even some stalwart pro-Israel lawmakers are starting to shift as the death toll spirals with no resolution in sight.
On Friday, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a rare condemnation of Israel’s attacks on a building that housed the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera.
“I am deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets,” Menendez said.
The ideological makeup of the caucus has also shifted in recent years, with newly elected progressives often being more willing to criticize bedrock U.S. policy positions on Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“The Palestinians are an occupied people. They are an oppressed people. Innocent people and children are suffering as America supports the occupation and denies Palestinians freedom,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., tweeted.
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., explicitly connected the conflict between Israel and Palestinians to issues of police brutality and racial justice in the U.S. “The fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected. We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma,” Bush wrote in a tweet.
In a House floor speech, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who is Palestinian American, said she was “a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do indeed exist, that we are human.” Tlaib then condemned her colleagues for continuing “unconditional support” for Israel that “has enabled the erasure of Palestinian life.”
But many Democrats in Washingtonsee Israel’s alliance as crucial to American interests.
“Firing rockets at civilians in Israel is an act of terrorism, period. The latest rocket fire underscores the need for missile defense programs, such as Iron Dome, which protects Israeli civilians – both Arabs and Jews – from the terrorism of Hamas,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., tweeted.
Others also spoke out against the terrorist group.
“Please don’t be fooled by false choices. Israel and Hamas? If I am asked (to choose) between a terrorist organization and our democratic ally, I will stand with Israel every day of the week,” Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism, said in a floor speech Thursday.