columnIsrael at War

Has Biden tipped the Democrats back towards a bipartisan consensus?

His ill-advised help for the Palestinians notwithstanding, the political left is unhappy with the administration’s strong pro-Israel stand. Can it force him to change in the coming weeks?

U.S. President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
U.S. President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, Oct. 18, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It’s all a matter of perspective. For Israel’s government, the obvious benefits of President Joe Biden’s brief visit to Israel, his fulsome rhetoric of support for the Jewish state and scathing denunciations of Hamas were balanced by the costs.

Biden’s insistence on opening up a corridor for humanitarian aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza and the immediate grant of $100 million in aid to the Palestinians was a troubling gift to the terrorist enemy that would likely do little to help innocent civilians. Coupled with his lecturing Israelis not to be “consumed” with “rage” and warnings about the Israel Defense Forces’ ground operations in Gaza not causing too many civilian casualties, it gave the impression that the Americans were calling the shots in a way that might—once the expected offensive began to attract international criticism—preclude a decisive victory over Hamas.

But the same set of actions is being viewed very differently by American progressives.

As The New York Times, which is a reliable indicator of left-wing opinion even while the anti-Israel bias of its coverage of the current conflict makes it almost unreadable, wrote that the president seems to be throwing his political base overboard. As an article titled, “Biden’s Response to Israeli War Meets Centrist Praise and Liberal Anger,” made clear, the president’s decision to back Israel in the wake of the horrific Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks is causing “strain” inside the Democratic coalition.

Dissent on the left

For pro-Israel Democrats, Biden’s embrace of Israel is a vindication of their party, which has been drifting away from support for the Jewish state in the past two decades. Biden spent his first three years in office tilting hard to the left on a broad range of domestic issues to the point where his policies seemed indistinguishable from that of Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), rendering fraudulent his 2020 promises of a centrist presidency.

But his instinctive rallying behind the Jewish state at a time of need (albeit tempered by his usual paternalistic attitude in which he sought to lecture its leaders and people and even micro-manage Israel’s defense) changed all that. It harkened back to an earlier era in which the Democrats were at the very least equal partners with Republicans in a bipartisan pro-Israel consensus. And, as the Times was eager to point out, that is making a lot of liberal Democrats very unhappy.

Some of that unhappiness was on display this week as anti-Zionist Jews, egged on by “Squad” member Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), staged their own insurrection-style demonstration at the Capitol that led to 300 arrests. The fact that members of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which routinely dabble in leftist antisemitism, want a ceasefire that would help Hamas is a surprise to no one and doesn’t tell us much about the views of most Americans.

The rumblings of dissent from inside the congressional Progressive Caucus—a group that comprises a majority of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives—highlighted the fact that a key portion of his party, which seems to represent the opinions of most of their voters, doesn’t want a president who is willing to align himself so closely with the cause of Israel.

The anger on the left was also demonstrated by the public resignation of Josh Paul, a heretofore unknown mid-level U.S. State Department official who denounced Biden for his “blind support for one side,” which he said was leading to policy decisions that were “shortsighted, destructive, unjust and contradictory to the very values we publicly espouse.” Many of Biden’s lower-level appointments in jobs dealing with foreign policy below the cabinet level are filled by people with well-known hostility to Israel. This led to speculation about whether Paul would be the first of a series of defections from the administration, thus adding to the sense of a growing split within the Democrats.

The question is: Do these progressives have the clout to bring Biden to heel once a ground offensive in Gaza starts and the corporate liberal media heats up a campaign to depict Israel as a heartless aggressor and the Palestinians as helpless victims?

Obama wouldn’t have done it

The first thing about this that must be acknowledged is that, notwithstanding his ill-advised efforts on behalf of aid to the Palestinians that constitute nothing less than a lifeline to Hamas, the value of Biden’s pro-Israel rhetoric shouldn’t be discounted.

His framing of the conflict with Palestinian terrorists as one that hinges on their war to destroy Israel was spot on. So was his depiction of Hamas as the moral equivalent of ISIS and his correct characterization of their barbaric crimes. While the impact of his efforts to impose constraints on the impending offensive by the Israel Defense Forces during his visit to Israel remains troubling, there’s no mistaking the fact that this president, unlike his former boss former President Barack Obama, is not interested in creating more “daylight” between the two allies. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine Obama, even during his re-election year when he did his best to charm Jews to get their votes in 2012, reacting to the terrorist assault the way Biden has.

This does more than undermine the position of those who claim that Obama—and the flock of alumni from his administration who currently hold most of the reins of power in the White House and cabinet departments—are pulling the strings on the aging and often-faltering Biden like a marionette. It’s a sign that when it comes to Israel, Biden is prepared to do something that he has done very rarely since taking office in January 2021: defy his party’s left wing.

After a disastrous start to his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination due to a consensus within the party’s establishment that he was the only one who could stop Sanders from becoming the nominee and handing the election to then-President Donald Trump. The conceit of his campaign was that he was a traditional centrist that would return the country to a sense of normalcy.

Yet almost from the moment that he secured the nomination, Biden began tilting to the left, bringing in people from the Sanders camp into his campaign—a practice that was repeated once he got to the White House.

That was reflected in his policies on a host of issues concerning the economy, illegal immigration, radical environmentalism, student loans and even imposing the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion on every government department and agency, something that may do more long-term damage to the nation than even his out-of-control spending.

That was also reflected in a foreign policy focused on a revival of Obama’s appeasement of Iran and an initial coolness towards expanding the 2020 Abraham Accords brokered by Trump. And since Ukraine was bound up in the first attempt to impeach Trump and many on the left still believed the myth that Russia stole the 2016 election, few on the left were bothered by Biden’s all-out commitment to Kyiv after Moscow’s illegal invasion in February 2022.

Biden’s hostility to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his embrace of the protests against judicial reform in the Jewish state, which were couched in the same misleading rhetoric about “defending democracy” that Democrats have employed to smear Republicans, also mitigated any criticism from the left on Israel.

And while most of the liberal chattering classes, liberal pundits and the foreign-policy establishment reacted to the barbaric Oct. 7 attack on Israel with language that depicted the Jewish state’s efforts to defend itself against terrorists as morally equivalent to those slaughtering Jews, Biden struck a very different tone.

His stance seemed to channel the Democratic Party of the past that may have looked askance at right-wing Israeli governments but was still wholeheartedly behind the Jewish state. Even though he was dead wrong when he claimed that Hamas was not broadly popular among Palestinians and eager to revive failed policies of the past like the two-state solution (that was itself exploded by the record of Hamas’s independent Palestinian state in Gaza), there was no mistaking Biden’s willingness to embrace the cause of Israel and Zionism, and to treat the terrorists group’s crimes as beyond the pale.

His willingness to stick to that line once the narrative flips from being about Jewish victims of terrorism to the plight of those living in Gaza remains to be seen.

The foreign-policy “wise men” who have been touting failed Middle East policies embraced by Biden and the Democrats have already begun to criticize the Israeli effort to wipe out Hamas even before it has begun. The corporate media’s willingness to embrace Hamas lies about the IDF bombing a hospital was the quintessential “fake news” story that also demonstrated the shaky nature of liberal support for Israel. The explosion, which was quickly proved to be the result of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket that landed in the hospital’s parking lot, served as an indication of just how eager most mainstream journalists were to believe the lies of the terrorists and think the worst of Israel. A steady stream of such stories, even if they are false, will energize progressives to attack Biden and make it harder for him to stand his ground in a party where all the energy appears to be on the left.

Pro-Israel is good politics

While the pressure on Biden to moderate his support for Israel may prove difficult for the White House to resist, his re-election campaign will be aided if he continues to confound his left-wing allies. While national polling consistently shows that Democrats are trending against Israel, support for the Jewish state remains strong elsewhere. Reinforcing his pro-Israel bona fides is a winner with the independent voters who will likely decide what is shaping up to be a close 2024 election between Biden and Trump.

Trump can correctly claim that his policies were the most pro-Israel of any president and that Biden’s mistakes made the current conflict inevitable. But his statements since Oct. 7 seemed to reflect more his narcissism than his pro-Israel stance. Even as he condemned Hamas and supported Israel, it was his comments bashing Netanyahu for not backing his claim to have won the 2020 election and his praise of Hezbollah as being “very smart” that made the headlines.

As the Times noted, Biden’s pulling the Democrats back to a centrist position on Israel could lessen the enthusiasm of his party’s activist base to work for his re-election. Still, the spectacle of his trip to Israel in wartime contrasted with House Republicans squabbling and not being able to elect a speaker, let alone pass emergency aid to Israel, coupled with Trump’s bloviating, could earn Biden some pro-Israel votes that might otherwise go to the former president.

All that could change if the White House changes its tune about eliminating Hamas once the fighting in Gaza creates a tsunami of progressive anger. Should Biden put the brakes on Israel’s efforts to defend itself, or if he winds up helping Hamas survive and profit from its crimes, then it will become a blunder of immense proportions, strengthening Iran as well as give his domestic critics ammunition to use against him next year. Supporting Israel is not just good policy and the right thing to do. It’s very much in Biden’s political interest.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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