Last night the White House was lit up in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag, a bold visual reminder by President Joe Biden of his unflinching support for one of America’s closest allies and a clear sign about how he sees the conflict.
Away from the lights, Democrats in Washington are deeply concerned that the outpouring of goodwill toward Israel in the wake of the horrific attacks by Hamas may be fleeting.
“For the last couple of days we’ve seen all the pictures of girls who were killed at this festival and the children and the parents and the Holocaust survivor and the elderly, and the hundreds of people who are dead and the stories about them being raped,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who like others, was granted anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive internal politics.
“That’s over. Okay? The media is going to turn from all of that real soon. And the only images we’re going to see for the next couple of weeks are dead Palestinians,” the member added. “So that’s when the Progressive Caucus will get all ginned up.”
Earlier this year, Gallup reported on an important public opinion milestone: “After a decade in which Democrats have shown increasing affinity toward the Palestinians, their sympathies in the Middle East now lie more with the Palestinians than the Israelis, 49% versus 38%.”
Biden, who has been defying that trend for years, will now have to defend Israel against skeptics in his party the same way he has been defending Ukraine against skeptics in the GOP. He’ll have his first chance when he speaks about the conflict on Tuesday afternoon.
Biden’s relationship with Israel stretches back much farther than that of most living Democrats. He first visited the country as a freshman senator in 1973, and often likes to tell the story of how the hour he spent with then-prime minister Golda Meir, a few weeks before a surprise Arab attack on Israel started the Yom Kippur War, was “one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life.”
His vice presidency and presidency have coincided with the most strained period of relations between the Democratic Party and the Israeli government, yet Biden has generally resisted the advice of younger aides who have urged him to snub Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
During a trip to Israel as vice president, Netanyahu seemed to purposefully embarrass Biden by announcing an expansion of housing in East Jerusalem, but Biden declined to retaliate by leaving the country early as some aides wanted.
The relationship has been further tested in his presidency. The key episode to revisit is Israel’s May 2021 incursion into Gaza after a major Hamas rocket attack. Biden backed Netanyahu unequivocally: “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory,” he said.
But with each passing day of the conflict, as violence in Gaza mounted, the criticism from some Democrats in Congress escalated, and Biden felt more pressure in his private conversations with Netanyahu to push for a ceasefire, which came 11 days after the initial attack.
The scale of Hamas’s attack on Saturday is far greater and more barbaric than any recent violence against Israel, but several House Democrats we spoke to last night are convinced that this political cycle will repeat itself.
The most pro-Palestinian Democrats already see the conflict in starkly different terms from Biden and are using language that equates the Hamas attack and the Israeli response. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), for instance, decried lives lost on both sides “following attacks by Hamas militants on Israeli border towns and Israeli military bombardment of Gaza.”
She joined a handful of others on the left in calling for a “ceasefire and de-escalation” rather than reinforcing Israel’s right to retaliate and prevent future attacks.
A second Democratic member said that such views remained on the fringe but could easily spread, the same way that Ukraine aid skeptics went from the GOP’s fringe to its mainstream.
“Everyone just presumes that they’re going to play to type and say what they’re going to say. I don’t think anyone’s surprised about that. The key is making sure that it doesn’t grow and metastasize,” that lawmaker said. “The question is, a week from now or five days from now, what are we looking at when the counterassault begins in earnest?”
This tension among Democrats between backing Israel unequivocally and calling for restraint exists not just in Congress but within the Biden administration, as well. Secretary of State Antony Blinken deleted a tweet urging a “ceasefire” on Sunday, while State’s Office of Palestinian Affairs deleted a tweet urging “all sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks.”
That tension also hangs over Biden’s fragile legislative strategy that started to take shape on Monday, as several news outlets reported, of potentially tying aid to Ukraine with aid to Israel.
Currently, there are a lot more Republicans who are hostile to financing Ukraine’s defense than there are Democrats who are hostile to financing Israel’s defense. Daring Republicans to vote against a combo package seems to make sense. But one pro-Israel Democrat warned that the administration had better think through the strategy carefully.
“I will not hold up funding for Israel if that becomes a vote problem,” the lawmaker said. “Then I will support decoupling them.”
The timing of any new Israel aid package is up in the air. White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on a call last night that there’s enough money in the pipeline right now.
“We have existing authorities and existing appropriations to continue to support Israel,” Kirby said. “If we need — and it’s an if — if we need to go back to Capitol Hill for additional funding support for Israel, we will absolutely do that.”
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