Essential Politics: Biden confronts shifting U.S. views of Israel, Palestinians

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on Thursday.
Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel on Thursday, the day before a cease-fire was declared. Most of the rockets launched by the militant group Hamas were shot down; 12 Israelis were reported killed. More than 240 Palestinians were reported killed in Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
(Hatem Moussa / Associated Press )

This is the May 21, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Eleven days of battle between Israel and Hamas — the fourth major round between the two since 2008 — took more than 240 lives, the vast majority on the Palestinian side and, once again, left large parts of Gaza in rubble.

The fighting followed a familiar pattern: A triggering event, an escalating exchange of rockets from Gaza and air attacks by Israel, vows on both sides to press the fight to its conclusion, then a cease-fire brokered by third parties that restores a miserable status quo.


In the U.S., however, this round of Mideast warfare elicited a notably different reaction than in the past — a much higher profile for critics of Israel’s actions, especially on the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Led by figures including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the progressive bloc publicly lobbied President Biden to break with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They also want to block the sale of $735 million in precision-guided bombs to the Israelis.

The effort to block the arms sale almost certainly will fail, and it’s unclear if the advocacy from the left significantly changed Biden’s approach to the conflict. But the very public dissent sent a clear message that Israel could no longer count on unquestioning support from Washington. For Biden, it provided a reminder that while he has managed so far to bridge his party’s divides over domestic policy, a split over foreign policy remains.

A Palestinian woman sweeps rubble from the ruins of her home Friday in the town of Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian woman sweeps rubble from her family’s ruined home Friday in the town of Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, after a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
(Associated Press)

A generational shift

In brief remarks Thursday night, after the cease-fire was announced, Biden maintained his pro-Israel stance.

“The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself,” he said, and he pledged to “replenish Israel’s Iron Dome system,” the country’s U.S.-developed anti-missile technology — a promise the administration had conspicuously withheld earlier.


His one nod to the dissenters in his party was his statement that “Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy.”

That formulation — support for Israeli security coupled with an exhortation toward better conditions for the Palestinians — reflects Biden’s long-standing views. It also coincides with the center of U.S. public opinion, which remains more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians and generally supports U.S. guarantees of Israel’s security.

But the advantage Israel has enjoyed has shrunk.

The share of Americans who say their sympathies lie primarily with the Palestinians has grown from roughly 1 in 7 during most of the first decade of this century to about 1 in 4 today, according to Gallup. The share of Americans who say their sympathies lie mostly with Israel has remained stable, at roughly 6 in 10, while the number who say they’re neutral or don’t have an opinion has declined.

The shift has both a partisan and a generational component, with liberal Democrats and younger Americans less favorable to Israel than Republicans and older Americans.

Both divides put Biden at odds with a growing share of his party and have been sharply on display.

Biden spoke six times to Netanyahu by phone; Democrats on the left spoke to Biden through social media.

“For decades, the U.S. has sold billions of dollars in weaponry to Israel without ever requiring them to respect basic Palestinian rights,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. “We have directly contributed to the death, displacement and disenfranchisement of millions.”

Sanders, in a video Thursday, said that while “Hamas firing rockets into Israeli communities is absolutely unacceptable, today’s conflict did not begin with those rockets.”

“We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter, Palestinian lives matter,” he said.

That phrasing, with its echo of Black Lives Matter, is no accident. On the Democratic left and among younger Americans, many “look at the issue through the perspective of social justice in America,” said Mark Mellman, the longtime Democratic pollster and strategist who heads Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

Mellman believes the analogy is incorrect but agrees “there’s no question” that “younger people are far more critical.”

The generational shift reflects change in the Middle East: Biden came of age at a time when most Americans viewed Israel as a small, embattled democracy surrounded by enemies that were also perceived as hostile to the U.S.

Americans younger than 30 have grown up with Israel as the strongest power in the region, using its dominance to control the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and to besiege those in Gaza.

Since Hamas, which has said it is committed to Israel’s ultimate destruction, took over Gaza in 2007, it and other militant groups have built an arsenal of thousands of rockets and a maze of tunnels to store them, many under populated parts of the territory’s roughly 140 square miles. Israel, assisted by Egypt, has responded with a blockade that for more than a decade has strangled the area’s economy and immiserated its roughly 2 million residents.

In the most recent fighting, Hamas fired roughly 4,000 rockets at Israel. Most were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, but enough got through to terrorize much of southern Israel and kill a dozen people, including both Arabs and Jews. Israel responded with intense bombardments that military officials said were aimed at killing Hamas leaders and destroying military infrastructure hidden beneath the city, but which also demolished hospitals, high-rises and water treatment plants.

As the suffering of Gazans has helped shift the opinion of younger Americans, Netanyahu’s decision to align himself closely with the Republican Party has helped drive a partisan shift. His very public disagreements with President Obama, followed by his close embrace of President Trump, made support for Israel a far more polarized question than it once was.

Gallup over the past 14 years has asked Americans which side they think the U.S. should put more pressure on in order to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Since 2008, the year before Netanyahu’s current tenure as prime minister began, the share of Democrats who want the U.S. to put more pressure on Israel has risen from 33% to 53%. On the Republican side, that share has remained steady at 17%. Fewer than one-third of Democrats, and about two-thirds of Republicans, favor more pressure on the Palestinians.

“You can see this shift coming for a while,” said Carroll Doherty, of the Pew Research Center, then “you see it intensifying during the Trump years.”

In 2018, Pew found that 8 in 10 conservative Republicans sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with 2 in 10 liberal Democrats.

In 2019, Pew found that while majorities of both Democrats and Republicans have a favorable view of the Israeli people, Democrats were much more critical of the Israeli government.

In the current conflict, a poll taken last weekend by Morning Consult found that by 51% to 3%, Republicans said their sympathies were with Israel (19% said they sympathized with both sides), while Democrats were divided, 12% saying they sympathized more with Israel, 18% with the Palestinians and 36% with both. In both parties, about 3 in 10 had no opinion.

Republican leaders have played to their voters’ support for Netanyahu and his policies. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Tuesday suggested that even calling for a cease-fire meant “suggesting that there is moral equivalency” between Israel and Hamas. “There is no moral equivalency,” he said.

Both the generational shift and the partisan one largely took place long after Biden’s views of the Middle East solidified.

In Biden’s first year in the Senate, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack during Yom Kippur, opening a war in which Israel depended heavily on a massive U.S. effort to keep its armed forces supplied. That war established an alliance that deepened during the subsequent decades, especially during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, ordered Scud missile attacks on Israel as a U.S.-led coalition battled his forces in Kuwait.

Biden, who eventually became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, played a significant role in strengthening the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Though he has also been sharply critical of Netanyahu and has opposed Israel’s expansion of its settlements in occupied territory, he has put the U.S.-Israeli security relationship at the center of his policymaking.

As the current fighting quieted Thursday, White House officials made clear that Biden has no interest in changing his long-standing view.

“The president doesn’t see this through the prism of domestic politics,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “He sees this through the prism of what role the United States can play as a leader in the global community.”

And on Friday, Biden said in a news conference when asked about a shift in his party on the issue, “There is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel. Period.” But he added, “We still need a two-state solution. It’s the only answer.”

As to any shift in the Democratic Party, he said: “My party still supports Israel. Let’s get something straight here: Until the region says unequivocally they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace.”

Asian American prominence

Asian Americans voted in unprecedented numbers in 2020, but activists say their communities still aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was from India, is helping lead the administration’s efforts to consolidate Asian support, Noah Bierman wrote.

On Thursday, Biden signed a new law targeting hate crimes against Asian Americans, Chris Megerian reported.

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The latest from Washington

Biden is scheduled to meet Friday afternoon with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and what to do about North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will once again be high on the agenda, Eli Stokols and Tracy Wilkinson reported.

Administration officials are signaling that the public should not expect to see the sort of dramatic gestures that marked the previous administration’s approach. Biden’s policy “will not focus on achieving a grand bargain,” a senior official told reporters. Instead, Biden will pursue “a calibrated, practical approach” — diplomatic code for taking it slow.

The House approved legislation for a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, but McConnell is trying to kill it in the Senate, Jennifer Haberkorn reported.

Biden’s infrastructure plan targets zoning rules that hurt low-income households, Erin Logan writes. Will the suburbs buy in?

As global warming causes the ice to melt, Russia has moved aggressively to assert claims over the Arctic, a topic of this week’s first face-to-face meeting between Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Tracy Wilkinson reported.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to close a notorious detention center in Georgia where immigrant women alleged medical abuse, Molly O’Toole reported.

The latest from the campaign trail

Mark Barabak’s column looked at the history behind Arizona’s wacky presidential recount.

Trump failed to steal the 2020 vote, but his allies are laying the groundwork to try to steal the next election, Doyle McManus warns in his column.

The latest from California

Support for the death penalty is declining in California, but, Phil Willon reported, that doesn’t necessarily mean that voters would back a plan to abolish it, according to a new UC Berkeley/LA Times poll.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget provides a lot of money for several new programs, but not so much for public health, which has health department officials worried, Melody Gutierrez reports.

Sacramento’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst has admonished Newsom for gimmicks in his big-spending budget, George Skelton writes.

Months after the state approved $2.6 billion to help California tenants pay rent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been hampered by a slow start, confusion and bureaucratic red tape, Patrick McGreevy reports.

A plan to reimagine math education in the state has been enmeshed in controversy over whether it will impede advanced children from taking calculus, Howard Blume writes.

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