Biden’s dilemma: He seems certain to pay for Gaza but could yet cut his losses

US President Joe Biden. (AP)
US President Joe Biden. (AP)

Summary

  • He seems stuck between the US left and the right on this war, with his re-election prospects at stake. He should focus on human rights.

I think what he’s doing is a mistake," US President Joe Biden said [last week] of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mismanagement of the war in Gaza. “I don’t agree with his approach," he said [before Iran’s weekend strikes on Israel]. Mistakes were made. One of them was Biden’s previously unqualified support of Netanyahu, whose pursuit of Hamas in Gaza now looks an awful lot like ethnic cleansing. Global outrage over Hamas’s barbaric 7 October attack in Israel has been supplanted by global outrage at indiscriminate Israeli bombing, civilian deaths and widespread destruction in Gaza.

The destruction has spread to Biden’s political chances. Cease-fire proponents are waging protest votes against Biden in primary states. Protestors are a recurring feature of Biden public events. Many young Americans in particular are appalled that the US has been providing munitions for the bombardment of Gaza. Biden seems likely to pay a political price in November. “I think a lot of this damage is, frankly, irreparable," said Matt Duss, executive vice president of the Center for International Policy and a former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Sanders has called Gaza “one of the worst humanitarian disasters that we have seen in a very, very long time" and argues that “Israel should not be getting another nickel in military aid until these policies are fundamentally changed." Though Sanders holds the Democratic Party’s left flank, his views are not fringe. In an online survey of US adults conducted by YouGov 27 February to 1 March, 52% agreed that the US should halt arms shipments to Israel until it ends its military offensive in Gaza. Support for that position among 2020 Biden supporters is more lopsided, at 62% to 14%.

Gauging the intensity of those views is difficult, but some erstwhile Biden supporters are clearly livid. Plans for a White House iftar dinner during Ramadan ran into opposition from Muslim leaders furious, as one said , at Biden for “enabling the Israeli military to starve and slaughter the Palestinian people in Gaza."

For Muslims and others angry at Biden’s support of Israel, the political cost-benefit analysis is stark. If they sit out the election and Biden loses in November, [a man known for trying to deny US visas to people from Muslim countries] will move back into the White House. That would be a bitter result. Yet if politics were the sum of hyper-rational cost-benefit analyses, the world would be a vastly different place.

Complicating matters is that Netanyahu and Biden have diametrically opposed interests. While Biden wants peace, rebuilding and a plan for a shared Palestinian-Israeli future, Netanyahu appears to want none of that. He benefits from crisis, which keeps his shaky coalition together and Netanyahu out of the dock on corruption charges. Netanyahu also knows that Trump would not pester him about dead Palestinian children. And it’s Netanyahu, not Biden, who is steering the Gaza war.

Biden has received political cover for a retreat from Israel from Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York, which is home to about one-fifth of America’s Jewish population, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another stalwart supporter of Israel. But a retreat from Biden’s Netanyahu embrace might have its own political costs.

So far, all the pressure on Biden has come from those seeking an end to the violence. If Biden attempts to stop the flow of weapons to Israel, however, he will face attacks from Republicans. On Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson called Biden “an anti-Israel president." If Hamas, Hezbollah, or another ally of Iran were to launch a deadly attack during a pause in weapons shipments, GOP hysteria would reach the stratosphere and Biden would have a new and different Gaza problem.

Much is made of the substantial risk that Biden runs with Muslim voters in Michigan. That risk is real. But more than 100,000 Jews also live in Michigan. Pennsylvania, another swing state, which Biden carried in 2020 by 80,555 votes, is home to about 300,000 Jewish adults, according to a Brandeis University study. Support among Biden backers for halting arms shipments to Israel may be lopsided, but it’s not universal: Recall that 14% of Biden supporters in the YouGov poll supported continuing weapons shipments.

How Gaza [and Iran-Israel hostilities] will sway votes is unknown. Biden “does have an issue on his right and to his left," Duss said. But while the most politically beneficial path may be obscure, the commitment to human rights and international law that Biden has expressed in other contexts might provide a surer map. It’s too late for Biden to escape political damage from Gaza. But not too late to admit that he, too, made a mistake.

©Bloomberg

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy.

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