Not Too Late For Biden To Regain The Trust Of His Gaza War Critics – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg

There are many reasons for the US to act as an honest broker and help to bring about a peaceful end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be in America’s interest to remove from the regional agenda an issue that is a source of instability in an area of immense importance for Washington. Additionally, a one-sided American approach to the conflict compromises its image as a credible leader of the democratic world and an arbiter in other conflicts.

It is not Washington’s support of Israel as such that is damaging its reputation, but its doing so despite its own objections to Israel’s oppressive occupation of Palestinian land and people, its depriving Palestinians of their political and human rights and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. On many occasions, this has left the US isolated in the wider international arena, including the UN, for defending the indefensible when it comes to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.

However, there is also a growing movement that has been neglected by consecutive administrations — of changing attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue among the American electorate that are increasingly dividing domestic politics and might well affect election results.

In an NBC News poll last week, President Joe Biden’s approval rating slumped to 40 percent, the lowest level of his presidency. The most notable dip in approval of the current incumbent was on his handling of foreign policy and, more specifically, the Israel-Hamas war. What should worry Biden is that his support is hemorrhaging among Democrats, especially among the younger generation, who disapprove of the president for not doing enough to ensure that Israel’s military actions in Gaza do not result in an excessive loss of civilian lives.

Biden’s long-standing friendship with Israel began five decades ago, when he was a young senator, and continued when he was vice president to President Obama. He is a product of a generation that rarely expressed a critical view when it came to relations with Israel, even when it disagreed with its actions. Biden is something of an admirer of Israel. He has strong religious links as well as the historical-emotive sentiment of the post-Second World War generation.

Nevertheless, what he fails to realize is that, among the younger generation of mainly Democrat voters, support for Israel is less instinctive. And they have a strong sense of universal justice, which makes them more inclined to support the underdog in conflicts; hence they sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians rather than Israel, the latter being the stronger side in this conflict.

Although the identity of the Republican candidate is yet to be confirmed, next year Biden is most likely to face former President Donald Trump, as he did in the 2020 presidential election. At this early stage, the polls have Biden trailing Trump in some key battleground states, such as Nevada, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It is obviously not only the war in Gaza that upsets his supporters. Among other issues that divide the country are concerns held by many voters that the country is generally heading in the wrong direction — they worry about the state of the economy and also about Biden’s age. But the policy toward the war in Gaza now has a strong presence in the country’s current political discourse.

Since announcing his third run for the White House in November last year, it is still baffling for many, especially outside the US, how on earth Trump is allowed to run for any office, let alone the highest in the land, considering that he has been charged with 91 felony counts across four jurisdictions, not to mention his divisive and vitriolic rhetoric that is based mainly on figments of his own imagination. Yet, this is the reality of today’s US politics and, for Biden to win the 2024 presidential election, he at least needs to retain the Democrats’ traditional support base, much of which is young and ethnically diverse.

Biden’s support for Israel immediately after the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 was understandable and justified, but his administration’s staunch support for continuing the war when Israel’s offensive has already killed more than 14,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including an estimated 5,000 children, is attracting criticism from the left wing of his party and from many American Muslims.

It was Biden himself who, from the very early days of the war, warned Israel that democracies need to conduct their war efforts within internationally acceptable rules of war, but there has since been hardly any effort to persuade Israel to change its tactics in going after Hamas, despite the unacceptable and tragic death toll among Gazans. Alabas Farhat, a Democratic Michigan state representative whose district includes Dearborn, home to one of the largest Muslim and Arab American communities in the country, warned that “Joe Biden has single-handedly alienated almost every Arab American and Muslim American voter in Michigan.”

The Muslim community in the US is relatively small — 3.45 million, or about 1 percent of the general population — but with the support of young, liberal-minded voters, it could make a big difference in the next presidential election. However, the dilemma of those who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause is that Trump is hardly an attractive alternative, with his anti-Muslim rhetoric and campaigning to reinstate the travel ban on Muslims. However, in what is expected to be a close race, if a considerable number of those disenchanted voters decide to stay at home on polling day, Trump could be handed victory. That might prove to be an own goal, but it would represent the level of criticism of Biden’s approach to the war in Gaza.

It is not too late for Biden to regain the trust of Muslim voters and others who criticize his current stand on the war in Gaza. To do so, he must work to promote extended humanitarian ceasefires and eventually a permanent one, as well as, more generally, by changing America’s policies toward the Palestinians. This could start with the opening of a US consulate in Jerusalem and, when the war is over, recognizing the state of Palestine, followed by embarking on a peace initiative with the clear objective of establishing a Palestinian state whose capital is in East Jerusalem, while leaning on Israel to stop the expansion of settlements and the settler violence.

By doing so, not only might Biden win over those who oppose him for allowing the killing of so many thousands of civilians in Gaza, but such actions could also guarantee the long-term security and prosperity of both Israelis and Palestinians, while improving his chances for a second term in office.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg

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