WASHINGTON — When Joe Biden came of age, he saw Israel as a besieged state that was a haven for a persecuted Jewish minority, a worldview that stayed with him through his 36 years in the Senate and his rise to the presidency.
Biden often recalls in public speeches what former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir told him 50 years ago: “We have nowhere else to go.”
Today, a faction of Biden’s party sees Israel very differently: as a military colossus run by far-right officials who’ve suppressed Palestinians and denied them basic freedoms.
These dueling perceptions are the root of a fresh foreign policy crisis that is tearing at Biden’s political coalition and putting him in the awkward spot of reining in a Jewish state he has long revered.
The diplomatic challenge would bedevil any president. But it may be even more excruciating for Biden, who took his children to view the Nazi death camps and who calls himself a “Zionist in my heart.”
As Israeli leaders’ most important partner, Biden finds himself needing to help them defeat Hamas while limiting civilian bloodshed in crowded cities where the militants operate. He must reassure an anxious Jewish population without alienating Arab and Muslim Americans who argue that his nostalgia for Israel is outdated.
Beyond that, he needs to avoid escalation so that a contained conflict in the Middle East doesn’t draw in other countries and devolve into a global conflagration.
“Don’t,” he warned Middle East adversaries who may have considered attacking Israel.
So far, they haven’t.
“He’s really trying to strike a balance in a challenging public opinion and military environment,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in an interview. “I’m very concerned about the potential for escalation, and the president has done very well in deterring Iran and Hezbollah by sending in aircraft carriers and other military actions.”
Less successful is Biden’s attempt to unify his own country. The damage wrought by Israel’s military response to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 ignited a backlash that the White House has struggled to quell. Muslim leaders in Michigan and Minnesota have held protests and news conferences in recent weeks with the rallying cry, “Abandon Biden.” Scores of Biden campaign alumni wrote a letter to him last week calling on him to pressure Israel to stand down.
While nearly 70% of Democrats approve of Biden’s job performance overall, the number drops to 50% when it comes to his handling of the conflict in Gaza, an Associated Press-NORC survey showed.
Inside Congress, some Democratic lawmakers are urging the White House to take a more critical tone in public statements on the war or risk losing crucial support in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“I would like to see more aggressive and more clear public rhetoric. People around the country would like to see that,” said one moderate Democratic lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D.-Mass., a former presidential candidate, said she is in touch with constituents “who are deeply disturbed about the extreme number of civilian casualties and who want to see Israel live up to its obligation to respect civilians. The U.S. has a responsibility to be a good ally, and part of that is to remind our friends of the importance of abiding by international law and protecting civilians.” Warren declined to say whether she has shared this perspective directly with Biden.
(Asked about the warnings coming from Capitol Hill, a White House aide said that while some lawmakers have told the administration that they’d like to hear a different tone, many others offered praise for standing up for Israel’s self-defense).
Biden has called upon Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to minimize casualties, but has not used all the leverage at his disposal, critics of his approach say. Some Democrats said it’s time for the U.S. to attach conditions to the $14 billion aid package requested by the White House. It is doubtful, though, that a majority in Congress would go along with such a move.
“Israel would be weighing things very differently” if Biden were not only to cajole Israel to avoid civilian casualties but also to withhold U.S. weaponry unless Israel complied, said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian American civil rights attorney from Michigan, in an interview. “You can’t claim to care about Palestinian civilians and then ship out billions of dollars worth of military aid to Israel to continue killing Palestinian civilians,” said Arraf, a delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention who now says she won’t vote to re-elect Biden.
Amid the mounting death toll in Gaza, Biden’s party is splintering ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Younger, progressive Democrats have aligned with Arab Americans in demanding a cease-fire in Gaza that Biden won’t endorse.
Asked about the chances of a cease-fire last week, Biden flatly told reporters: “None. No possibility.”
In opposing a cease-fire, Biden has aligned himself with Israeli leaders who argue that it would give Hamas fighters time to regroup and defer the ultimate goal of preventing more surprise attacks coming from Gaza.
“When somebody proves unable to call for a cease-fire, it means they are condoning the brutal murder of Palestinian children each and every single day,” said Abdullah Hammoud, mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, a majority Arab American city that voted for Biden over Donald Trump in 2020 by a 3-to-1 margin. “My question for the president is, when is it OK to murder innocent children and how long will it take him to call for a cease-fire? That’s what speaks volumes to us here in the city.”
Mindful of the criticism, the White House is reaching out to Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim Americans in hopes of explaining its approach to the war.
Senior White House aides held at least two private Zoom calls over the past week to allay growing concerns about Israel’s counterattack. Both calls had a similar format, with senior White House advisers Stephen Benjamin and Neera Tanden taking part, a person familiar with the matter said. Neither call appears to have placated critics of Biden’s posture.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, who took part in one such call last week, said in an interview: “We were called to a meeting that was billed as Arab American engagement that didn’t include many of the community leaders. It felt more like they were checking a box than really listening to our needs and how to meet them.”
A separate call included about 10 Palestinian American leaders. The White House officials opened by talking about their efforts to counter Islamophobia and get humanitarian aid to suffering residents of Gaza, one participant said in an interview. When the guests mentioned they wanted to see the Biden administration. insist on a cease-fire, the White House aides made plain that wasn’t going to happen, this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was painful,” the participant said. “Our people are dying. The point of the cease-fire is to stop that pain. Stop the killing.”
Another White House official said of the meetings: “The president understands that the consequences of Hamas’ attack on Israel and Hamas’ decision to hide amongst civilians has caused tremendous pain in communities across the country. That’s why officials at the highest level of this administration have and will continue to engage and solicit input from leaders who advocate for a wide range of policies.”
Although Biden is by now keenly aware of the discontent among younger progressives, it’s far from clear he knows what to do about it, Democratic activists say. How voters see Israel may hinge on where they fall in the generational divide.
Biden is part of an older generation that recalls a time when Israeli leaders engaged in peace talks with Arab and Palestinian counterparts and signed agreements brokered by past presidents. But for younger Americans, the face of Israel may be Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister and a polarizing figure there and in the U.S. Netanyahu’s government has approved an expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a step backward if the ultimate goal is a peace accord that gives Palestinians their own sovereign state, supporters of a two-state solution say.
A Quinnipiac poll last month underscored how differently the generations view the Middle East conflict. Voters between the ages of 18 and 34 disapproved of the U.S. sending weapons to Israel coming off the Hamas attack by a margin of 51% to 39%, the poll showed. By contrast, a majority of voters in all older age groups approved.
“It’s such a massive change from anything these people [at the White House] have dealt with,” said one Democratic activist steeped in the Middle East debates in Congress. “There are a lot of people there who’ve been in business for 40-plus years, doing things a certain way. This is definitely rocking their world.”
“It’s coming at them hard and fast,” this person added.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com