Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War | Mint

Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War

Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War
Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War

Summary

The vice president has pushed the White House to show more empathy for Palestinians.

WASHINGTON—During more than a dozen phone calls to discuss the war in Gaza between President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a U.S. official, who has become increasingly involved in the administration’s handling of the conflict, was listening in: Vice President Kamala Harris.

In her private talks with top administration officials, Harris has emerged as one of the top policy makers bridging the divide within the Democratic Party between a hard core of Israel supporters and groups that are sharply critical of the Biden administration’s approach to the war in Gaza, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Among her efforts, Harris has pushed for the White House to articulate more empathy for Palestinians and to focus on a postconflict Gaza plan, the people familiar with the discussions said. That approach has come through in her public comments, most prominently during her whirlwind visit to the climate summit in Dubai, where she said, “Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians."

Waleed Shahid, a progressive Democratic strategist, said he saw Harris’s comments as a “trial balloon" for the administration to adopt a more critical tone against Israel, but they didn’t go far enough for Democrats who want to see the administration do more. “Many Democrats feel that actions speak louder than words right now," he said.

In the past two months, Harris has talked to several Palestinian-Americans who have been affected by the war, including those who have lost loved ones or recently left Gaza, a senior administration official said. She has talked to Jewish and Arab community leaders and the families of two American hostages who have been released, and she has met with the families of Americans who are still unaccounted for.

Harris’s background includes ties to both Jewish and Muslim communities. The vice president is married to a Jewish lawyer, Doug Emhoff, who has made antisemitism a priority in his work for the administration. She also has Muslim supporters within the South Asian community who connected to her personal story as the daughter of immigrants. Harris hosted an Eid celebration at the vice president’s residence earlier this year.

Harris’s diplomatic mission dovetails with her political one: As Biden battles sagging poll numbers in his effort to win a second term, Harris has been tasked with appealing to young voters, particularly on college campuses, as well as progressives and nonwhite voters more broadly—all groups that have expressed frustration with the administration’s Israel policy.

The vice president has seen firsthand the outrage over the conflict from younger voters during a college tour. A student at Harris’s stop at Northern Arizona University in October in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attack characterized the administration’s approach to the conflict as “inhumane" toward Palestinians to loud cheers and another shouted, “Stop making bombs."

Support for Israel’s military campaign has only grown more unpopular within the Democratic Party. According to a Gallup poll conducted Nov. 1-21, 63% of Democrats disapprove of Israel’s military actions in Gaza as well as 67% of those younger than 35 and 64% of people of color.

Protesters have regularly gathered outside the White House and followed the president during his travels, putting pressure on him to call for a full cease-fire. Several Democratic lawmakers are also calling on the administration to condition aid to Israel.

Biden has been reluctant to back a full cease-fire, pointing to the need to first win the release of all hostages and warning that any extended pause could allow Hamas to regroup and commit more attacks. Instead, the administration has helped negotiate temporary pauses in fighting.

Harris touted the administration’s approach in pushing for temporary pauses, saying in her remarks in Dubai, where she also met with key Middle Eastern leaders, that they had proved to be effective. In the same remarks, the vice president also offered some of the administration’s sharpest comments criticizing Israel’s military campaign.

“Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed. Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating," Harris said.

Authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 15,000 people, most of them women and children, have been killed there. The figures don’t distinguish between militants and civilians. Palestinian militants still hold hostages from the Oct. 7 attacks that Israeli officials say killed more than 1,200 people.

While others in the administration have publicly condemned the high civilian death toll in Gaza, Biden himself hasn’t gone as far yet as Harris has. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday “there was no daylight" between Biden and Harris’s views on the topic.

Biden has angered Muslim and Arab-Americans by frequently blaming Palestinian casualties on Hamas for embedding its fighters and facilities among civilians. He also cast doubt on the death toll in Gaza during an October press conference and suggested the loss of innocent Palestinians was the cost of war.

Halie Soifer, who served as Harris’s national security adviser in the Senate and is now CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which is supportive of the administration’s handling of the conflict, said she didn’t see a difference between Harris and other officials’ comments. “The administration speaks in one voice and that voice includes that of the vice president," Soifer said.

Although Harris has made several foreign trips and regularly meets with foreign leaders, her active role in the Middle East conflict is her first such role on a major international priority for the administration.

Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has decades of experience in diplomacy, hasn’t previously included the vice president on international crises to this extent. Some Democrats have pushed Biden, 81, to give Harris more diplomatic and national-security-related opportunities, to help assuage voters who are concerned about his age and not as familiar with the vice president’s work.

Harris has dispatched her national security adviser, Phil Gordon, to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the West Bank to follow up on her conversations in Dubai with leaders that focused on the administration’s plan for postconflict Gaza, which opposes forcible displacement, reoccupation, siege or blockade and reduction in territory. A potential trip to the region by Harris in the coming months would also give priority to that plan.

“We want to see a unified Gaza and West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian voices and aspirations must be at the center of this work," Harris said in Dubai. “At a certain point, the intense fighting and the phase of fighting will end, and we will begin implementing our plans for the day after."

Wa’el Alzayat, the chief executive of Emgage, a group that seeks to turn out Muslim voters, said Harris’s comments were “the most forward-leaning" from the administration. But Alzayat, who attended an Oct. 26 private meeting between Biden and Muslim leaders, said U.S. warnings to Israel around Palestinian civilian casualties and the displacement of Gazans were only effective if enforced through policy.

“The proof will be in the pudding," Alzayat said. “What will the administration do if and when Netanyahu ignores their calls?"

Sabrina Siddiqui contributed to this article.

Write to Tarini Parti at tarini.parti@wsj.com

Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War
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Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War
Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War
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Kamala Harris Works to Bridge Democratic Divide Over Israel-Gaza War
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