Biden changes tone toward Israel over Gaza war

There’s a long history of American presidents pressuring Israel to wind down wars earlier than planned.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower successfully threatened Israel, along with allies Great Britain and France, to back off the Suez Canal. In 2006, President George W. Bush‘s administration told Israel in no certain terms to wind down its war with Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and the Jewish state obliged. The list goes on.

The aftermath of Hamas‘s Oct. 7 attack on civilians and soldiers in southern Israel was supposed to be different. After all, the attacks, staged from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, claimed about 1,200 Israeli lives and saw more than 200 people taken hostage. An estimated 134 or fewer remain in captivity.

President Joe Biden effectively gave Israel the green light to pursue its war aims against Hamas in Gaza. Biden, who has been an ardent supporter of Israel during his decades in public office, said on Oct. 7, “In this moment of tragedy, I want to say to them and to the world and to terrorists everywhere that the United States stands with Israel. We will not ever fail to have their back.”

But Biden has a different message half a year on, with Palestinian civilian casualties mounting. And the president facing intense pressure from the Left as he gears up for a November rematch against his vanquished 2020 Republican rival, former President Donald Trump.

President Joe Biden speaks to the press aboard Air Force One during a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base on Oct. 18, 2023 as he returns from a visit to Israel. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

Continued U.S. support for Israel will be “determined by our assessment” of new humanitarian efforts for Palestinian civilians over the course of six months, a White House statement said recently. Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that future U.S. policy regarding Israel and Gaza will be conditioned on how well they improve the humanitarian efforts for Palestinian civilians.

The rhetoric change is the latest example of stress the war has placed on the U.S.-Israel alliance. U.S. officials have spent months urging Israeli leaders to do more to prevent civilian deaths while stiff-arming calls, mainly from progressives, for the administration to do more to end the conflict.

The war’s death toll exceeds 33,000, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry. Israel disputes that figure, also saying its forces have killed about 12,000 Hamas terrorists in Gaza. Every Palestinian living in Gaza is facing food insecurity and the threat of famine.

Biden administration criticisms of Israeli military tactics sharpened after a mistaken airstrike that killed seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian organization founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres.

Palestinians crowd together as they wait for food distribution in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Feb. 16. Hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to avoid starvation, according to aid groups. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair, File)

In the aftermath of the errant April 1 strike, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), one of Biden’s strongest allies on Capitol Hill, said for the first time that he believes the U.S. should condition aid to Israel.

“I think we’re at that point,” the Delaware senator said. “I’ve never said that before.”

He’s far from the only Democrat who has reached a breaking point with Israel. Nearly 40 Democrats signed a letter last week saying they believe “it is unjustifiable to approve these weapons transfers” in light of that strike. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was among the lawmakers who signed the letter, which was addressed to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The same day Coons came out in support of conditioning aid to Israel, Biden told Netanyahu that the U.S. would do just that.

“He made clear the need for Israel to announce and implement a series of specific, concrete, and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers,” a readout of the call said. “He made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reiterated that sentiment, telling reporters, “The president laid out his significant concerns about the direction and where things are going and, quite frankly, laid out, as is clear in the readout, that we are willing to reconsider our policy approaches here, dependent upon the Israelis do or don’t do.”

Within days of the call, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. had seen “a number of initial positive steps over the past few days,” including the opening of a new aid corridor into northern Gaza and the “initial implementation of a streamlined process for regular truck convoys,” and that Israel is establishing a coordination unit for deconfliction.

Biden and top officials have publicly called for Israel to do more to prevent civilian casualties for months, but they had not threatened to condition aid to Israel until the Biden-Netanyahu call.

Domestic politics collide with Middle East realities

Biden has faced continued criticism from the Arab and Muslim community, the more progressive members of his party, as well as from young voters over his handling of the war. Objectors to his policies frequently interrupt his public events, and organizers have rallied to vote against Biden in Democratic primaries.

Osamah Khalil, a Syracuse University professor and historian of U.S. foreign relations and the modern Middle East, told the Washington Examiner the administration has sought to “shield President Biden from criticism by the Democratic Party base in the middle of an election campaign while at the same time maintaining support for Israel’s military campaign.”

Biden’s reelection campaign is trying to balance a delicate situation in which it cannot afford to lose significant chunks of Arab and Muslim Americans who aren’t supportive of the war or from Jewish Americans who believe the president should do more to support the U.S.’s long-standing Middle East ally.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Richard LeBaron told the Washington Examiner, “I think the administration has to respond to its own political base, and to some degree, I don’t think that will ever result in a cutoff of military intelligence assistance,” though it could result in the slowdown of a particular weapons delivery.

LeBaron, now an expert with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, noted that Netanyahu has been a difficult partner for U.S. presidents to work with predating Biden’s tenure “because of his own desire to push his political survival first, [and] if that means going against the United States, he will do that.”

LeBaron, who was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, from September 2001 to July 2004, also acknowledged the conversation around Israel has changed during the current conflict.

“What I was concerned about is that this process that’s taken place over the last several months has really struck at the American support for not the government of Israel, but for the project of Israel. This questioning about whether this is a justifiable project, a homeland for the Jews, I’ve never experienced that in my career before,” he said. “There is a chink in the armor about the notion [of] Israel, and that’s, I think, worrisome.”

Through the six months of war, Israel has successfully destroyed much of Hamas’s numbers, but there remains a sizable contingent of fighters. Several top Hamas leaders are still in hiding. Israeli leaders believe they need to carry out ground operations in the southern city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering from the war, but the U.S. strongly believes it would result in significant civilian casualties.

The Biden administration has sought for weeks to convince them not to carry out full-scale operations in Rafah. But Netanyahu remains committed to an invasion of Rafah. Several other governments have warned about similar concerns.

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Should Israel go ahead with a full ground invasion of Rafah without getting American support beforehand, it would degrade the U.S.-Israeli alliance to a degree that was unthinkable in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks.

“When I spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning,” the president said that day, “I told him the United States stands with the people of Israel in the face of this terrorist assaults. Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Full stop.”

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