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Israel-Hamas War: What political consequences for Joe Biden?

Israel-Hamas War: What political consequences for Joe Biden?

By Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, CY Cergy Paris Université

On November 5, 2024, Americans will go to the polls to elect their next president. Traditionally, foreign policy doesn’t weigh much on the outcome of a American presidential election, but might the return of violence in the Middle East reverse this old trend?

What is certain is that the war between Israel and Hamas is being followed very closely in the United States. While the Republican Party and all its primary candidates are unambiguously on Israel’s side, the Democrats appear more divided. President Biden, traditionally aligned with the interests of the Hebrew state, has been playing a particularly difficult juggling act since October 7, seeking to protect and support Israel, while not appearing insensitive to the now 11,000 Palestinian victims caused by the Israeli response, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Joe Biden, a “Zionist in his heart” forced to play a balancing act.

Faced with the scale and nature of Hamas’ massacre on 7 October, which left 1,200 Israelis dead, Joe Biden drew parallels between these events and the Holocaust and the September 11th attacks. He immediately pledged his unconditional support to the Israeli government. This promise materialized not only in his visit to the Hebrew state on October 18, notwithstanding the political and security risks such a trip entailed, but also in the instruction to move navy warships closer to the country and send out artillery shells initially destined for Ukraine.

This squares with President Biden’s historic ties with Israel. Notwithstanding periods of friction with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, whom he met extensively during his tenure as Barack Obama’s Vice President (2008-2016), Biden has undeniable pro-Israeli bias, even describing himself as “Zionist in [his] heart” . In fact, he is more popular in Israel than in the United States, and has received financial support from pro-Israeli groups throughout his career.

The current crisis makes such a position tricky to maintain. On the one hand, the left wing of the Democrats accuse Biden of not taking sufficient account of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and being too complacent towards the Netanyahu government. And on the other, Republicans say he is responsible for the attack on Israel by being too complacent towards Iran, which supports Hamas. Aware of the stakes, and for only the second time in his presidency, President Biden addressed the nation in prime time from the Oval Office, making the case for military aid to both Israel and Ukraine. Speaking of an “inflection point in history,” he denounced anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which are on the rise in the United States. He also reiterated his plea to Israelis not to be “blinded by rage” and to learn the lessons of an American overreaction to 9/11, referring to the Bush administration’s 2003 intervention in Iraq.

A divided left

The president’s balancing act takes place amid a growing number of protests and heated debates across the country. Thousands of demonstrators have poured in New York City and university campuses in solidarity with Palestine, while on Capitol Hill Jewish peace activists called for an “immediate ceasefire” and justice for the Palestinians.

This is not entirely a surprise. For the last several years, the Democrats have been divided on the Israel question. The left wing of the party has become increasingly critical both of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and, more generally, of Netanyahu’s far-right government. This is reflected not only in divisions within the party but also in a shift in favour of the Palestinians among Democrats and Independents in opinion polls.

The October 7 massacre has not reversed this trend. Moreover, the significant generational and racial differences, are likely to remain, as young and non-white liberals become more critical of public and armed support for Israel.

While in October 72% of whites said the US should take a public stance supporting Israel in the war between Israel and Hamas, that figure dropped to 51% in the case of nonwhites, according to a poll by NPR. The Black community, for instance, has a long history of identification with the Palestinian cause, especially since the Six-Day War in 1967. This cause was promoted by radical organizations such as The Black Panther Party and The Nation of Islam, whose leader Louis Farrakhan is a notorious anti-Semite. It gained momentum on the left with Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988. More recently, the death of George Floyd in 2020 had many young Americans, notably through Black Lives Matter, draw parallels between the structural violence and oppression of both Blacks in the USA and Palestinians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

As for American Jews, traditionally more liberal, the unity they had once enjoyed in their opposition to Netanyahu has splintered on the face of this crisis. Some are demonstrating against the strikes on Gaza and calling for a ceasefire, while others highlight the victims of Hamas and feel abandoned by their left-wing allies.

President Biden has increasingly taken into account this public opinion. As the death toll in Gaza has increased, his focus has shifted toward the suffering of a marginalized population trapped in Gaza. Biden has also secured humanitarian aid to Gaza at the Egyptian border, and even temporary pauses in the fighting. His continuous refusal to demand a cease-fire, however, is unlikely to appease his critics, including those among Jewish-American intellectuals, legal scholars, or the Democratic party.

Republicans (finally) united

The Republican Party, fractured on the issue of Ukraine, is united in its support for Israel. The first act of the new Republican House Speaker, Mike Johnson, was to pass a resolution in support of Israel for “whatever it needs” in its fight against Hamas, a resolution passed by an overwhelming majority despite a small group of (mostly) Democratic opponents. Following strong criticism from his rivals in the primaries, even Donald Trump backtracked after lashing out at Netanyahu and praising Hezbollah, calling it “very smart.” The vote of a $14.3b aid package to Israel, however, has been stalled by internal divisions over aid to Ukraine.

There are several reasons behind the party’s unwavering support for Israel. One of them is the influence of the white evangelicals, an important voting bloc for Republicans. Most evangelicals, such as new house speaker Mike Johnson, read the events in Israel through a literal interpretation of biblical prophecy about the end times), and God’s promise to Abraham of a land for his descendants. It is to please this group that Trump moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Another important element is the great ideological proximity between the MAGA Republicans and the far-right Israeli coalition in power in Israel.

Finally, let us not forget there has been a growing Islamophobic sentiment among conservatives, especially since 9/11 – a sentiment nurtured and exploited by Trump. In fact, the former president has recently promised to renew the travel ban on nationals of several Muslim-majority countries and extend it to refugees from Gaza if he wins the presidency.

How might this crisis impact the 2024 elections?

Since the war broke out, public opinion has essentially remained divided along partisan lines. Moreover, with a few exceptions, such as the hostage crisis in 1979 or the War on terror in 2004, foreign policy issues have rarely determined a national election since the Vietnam war. Even the relatively swift victory in Iraq in 1991 did not prevent George Herbert Walker Bush, who had the highest approval rate after the war, from losing the election 18 months later. What matters most to the American voter are day-to-day issues, particularly regarding the economy, or social issues like abortion.

However, the political landscape has changed tremendously in the last two cycles. 2024 could very well be a close election determined by only a handful of electors in a few swing states, between two uniquely unpopular candidates.

Even if a majority of voters broadly support Israel, Joe Biden might be in trouble if some non-white voters, like Arab-Americans and left-wing pro-Palestinian youth protest against his stance by not turning out to vote in swing states. For example, a key state like Michigan, which Biden won in 2020 by a narrow margin of 150,000 voters, has a large Muslim population (estimated at 240,000) whose leaders are highly critical of Biden’s policy toward the Palestinians.

The elections are a year away, and a lot can change between now and then. Much may depend on how the crisis evolves and on what makes the headlines by then. The official campaign season has not even begun yet. In the meantime, in the face of rising isolationist sentiment, the American president will have to convince people that the United States is indeed the “indispensable nation” in the fight against tyrants and terrorists who threaten peoples and democracies. He will also have to demonstrate, as he said in his address to the nation, that Putin is as dangerous as Hamas. Above all, he will have to counter the image of a weakened US power, embodied by a president physically marked by his old age, at a time when voters seem more attracted by energy and strength than by experience and competence.The Conversation

Jérôme Viala-Gaudefroy, Assistant lecturer, CY Cergy Paris Université

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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