Biden’s approach to Israel-Gaza conflict angers both sides

President Biden in recent months has grown more publicly critical of Israel’s operations in Gaza. PHOTO: REUTERS
President Biden in recent months has grown more publicly critical of Israel’s operations in Gaza. PHOTO: REUTERS

Summary

An airstrike that killed seven aid workers exacerbated tensions on the left, while tougher rhetoric toward Israel risks alienating Jewish Americans.

WASHINGTON—The Israeli strike that killed seven aid workers in Gaza is the latest example of a persistent political problem for President Biden: his approach to the Israel-Hamas war has left him squeezed on both sides.

The deadly attack late Monday on World Central Kitchen workers, which Israel called an accident, sparked an outcry from progressive Democrats in Congress, who have renewed calls for a cease-fire and to suspend U.S. aid to Israel. It also cast a cloud over Biden’s planned event at the White House on Tuesday, when he was slated to commemorate the holy month of Ramadan with Muslim and Arab-American leaders.

The event was expected to be tense. One attendee told The Wall Street Journal that the deadly strike added to concerns several invitees already had about going. Some felt pressure to forgo the invite and others viewed it as a rare direct audience with the president, this person said.

Some Muslim leaders declined invitations to attend, citing their continuing frustration with the Biden administration’s unconditional aid to Israel. Some activists were calling on others to boycott the event and planned a protest outside the White House.

“Our organization did not feel that it’s appropriate to break bread while there’s a famine in Palestine enabled with [U.S.] support," Wa’el Alzayat, the chief executive of Emgage, a group that seeks to turn out Muslim voters, said of his decision to turn down an invite. “While we welcome engagement, we need the community to select its own qualified representatives rather than just the White House determining who it wants to invite."

On the flip side, Biden in recent months has grown more publicly critical of Israel’s operations in Gaza. The American president called for a temporary cease-fire to let more aid into Gaza—and to free hostages still being held by Hamas following the Oct. 7 attacks that Israel says killed 1,200 people.

He has also warned that Israel’s plans to invade Rafah, where roughly 1.6 million Palestinians are sheltering, would cross a “red line." And the U.S. abstained from a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, clearing the measure’s approval and prompting Israel to withdraw from coming high-level meetings with the Biden administration.

The president’s tougher rhetoric toward Israel risks alienating Jewish Americans who support Israel’s offensive and believe the president is acquiescing to political pressure from within his own party.

“Polarization on these issues between these communities is getting deeper," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal Jewish lobby organization. “Both sides deserve to have their rights and security and ultimately their freedom—that’s what the administration is trying to do—build a path towards that, and that’s not easy."

Last week, one prominent Jewish organization voiced concern in a meeting with White House and NSC officials that the administration’s rhetoric criticizing Israel was endangering Jewish people in America, according to a person familiar. Administration officials pushed back by noting that the level of civilian casualties stemming from Israel’s offensive wasn’t helping matters, this person said.

Some senior aides to the president have become increasingly worried that his support for Israel’s war effort will cost him votes in November. A Wall Street Journal poll conducted in late February found that 60% of voters disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war, 8 points more than in December, with 31% approving of Biden’s actions.

Alzayat, of the Muslim-voter outreach group, was one of just five people to attend an October meeting between Biden and Muslim leaders. He was discouraged by recent reports that the Biden administration was continuing to authorize the transfer of bombs and other weapons to Israel, as well as Israel’s raid on Gaza’s largest hospital and Monday’s strike on aid workers.

White House press secretary Karine-Jean Pierre said the president would first host a meeting with Muslim leaders to discuss issues facing the community, and then break fast with senior Muslim administration officials. She said the plans had been made after community leaders requested a policy discussion in lieu of a meal, out of respect for Palestinians facing starvation in Gaza.

The first White House Iftar dinner has been traced back to Thomas Jefferson and the occasion became a regular event during the Clinton administration. It continued under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—often attended by prominent Muslims from across the country. Former President Donald Trump, who often promoted anti-Muslim rhetoric and proposals, didn’t host the event in his first year in office but held smaller Iftar dinners with cabinet officials and ambassadors from Muslim-majority countries in 2018 and 2019.

Under Biden, the White House shifted toward holding larger receptions for Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, that in the past two years were attended by hundreds of people. But this year, members of the Muslim and Arab-American communities have been far less willing to engage with the Biden administration as the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 32,000, according to Palestinian authorities.

Some of those expected to attend the meeting with Biden on Tuesday said they ultimately decided it was a rare opportunity to confront the president directly.

“We must have our voices heard," said Salima Suswell, a senior adviser at Emgage who said she is attending in her personal capacity as leader of the Black Muslim Leadership Council.

“The president needs to understand that Black Muslims and Black Americans are devastated by the ongoing tragedy in Gaza, the loss of so many lives, and the administration’s support of the onslaught," Suswell said, adding that voters will judge him on the issue this fall.

Administration officials said they consulted with their Israeli counterparts, who quickly told them that the attack was a mistake and that the aid convoy had attempted to deconflict their activity with the Israel Defense Forces. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the White House was outraged when it learned of the strike and called for a swift Israeli investigation.

The strike that hit workers with World Central Kitchen—a group founded by celebrity chef José Andrés—drew condemnation from around the globe and put more pressure on the country to lower the civilian toll of its campaign.

At least two leading aid groups, American Near East Refugee Aid and Project HOPE, said they were halting operations in Gaza. Their pullback will undercut attempts to deliver aid to the besieged enclave where more than one million people are estimated to be starving.

Anera has been serving displaced Palestinians with food, medicine and other critical supplies amid the war.

“Something needs to be a turning point," said Anera chief executive Sean Carroll. “We’re going further into the depths of depravity and inhumanity."

Annie Linskey contributed to this article. 

Write to Sabrina Siddiqui at sabrina.siddiqui@wsj.com and Vivian Salama at vivian.salama@wsj.com

Biden’s Approach to Israel-Gaza Conflict Angers Both Sides
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Biden’s Approach to Israel-Gaza Conflict Angers Both Sides
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