November 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Israel-Hamas war threatens to fracture the Democrats

There's still time to close divisions by ending the war. But the way to do that, probably, is for the president to continue "bear-hugging" Israel.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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With more than 14,000 Palestinians now dead in Gaza, after being killed by Israel in retaliation against Hamas for the October 7 atrocities, it’s reasonable to doubt whether the president was correct in ensuring there was no daylight between the US and Israel.

The question seems obvious to some, especially young, liberal-minded people. Joe Biden was wrong. If he had been more critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government, there wouldn’t be more than 14,000 Palestinians now dead in Gaza. 

According to this view, by hectoring Israel publicly, the US might at least have avoided appearing to lend its credibility and approval to a corrupt leader who, by all available evidence, ignored clear warnings that the October 7 atrocities were coming, and who appeared to use those atrocities as pretext for committing more and greater atrocities. 

Whatever we might think of these young, liberal-minded people, it’s reasonable for them to doubt the president’s position, and it’s reasonable to respond to their doubt, to wit: Biden’s “bear hug” of Israel was probably the best position that the US could have taken. Indeed, anything less might have made a hellscape even more hellish.

“Biden has been able to slow down the ground assault into Gaza, get Israel to agree to daily pauses in the fighting, humanitarian corridors, as well as greater humanitarian assistance. A strategy of haranguing Israel would not have yielded the same dividends.”

Read on for more on that in the Editorial Board’s interview with William Adler, a professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University. Meanwhile, understand that this reasonable response to reasonable doubt about the president’s choices is probably not going to ease the concerns of young, liberal-minded people. Not for the moment, anyway. After all, more than 14,000 Palestinians are now dead.

Indeed, as long as the war is on, fissures in the Democratic Party will continue to widen. Young, liberal-minded people are threatening to sit out the election. So are some Arab and Muslim Americans, appalled by the president’s apparent approval of Israeli’s bombardment of civilians. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed concern about the antisemitism seeming to have emerged from his party’s left flank:

“Many of the people who have expressed these sentiments in America aren’t neo-Nazis, or card-carrying Klan members, or Islamist extremists,” he said. “They are in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.”

It’s not reasonable to expect these fissures to be closed – not while the war rages on, not with so many civilian deaths. No amount of arguing, for or against the president’s bear-hug policy, is going to change that. The only thing that can close them is time. Fortunately, there is time. There’s time, before the next election, for Biden to keep bear-hugging Israel. By doing so, he can push both sides of the war to end it.

JS: Is Biden’s “bear hug” working?

WA: I think the “bear hug” strategy is working, at least to some extent. Israeli leaders often require the public approval of the United States for domestic political reasons, and the lack of that can be very harmful. 

Netanyahu is unusual insofar as he thrived when President Obama criticized him during the debate over the Iran deal, but given his weak standing at home following the October 7 attacks, having Biden publicly side so strongly with Israel is clearly in his interest. Then Biden can privately critique and offer advice behind closed doors. 

This strategy has paid dividends, according to many reports, which have stated that Netanyahu’s first impulse was a preemptive strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon, which surely would have deepened the conflict and possibly even involved Iran directly. That might have compelled the US to defend Israel and make the situation much, much worse. 

Biden has also been able to slow down the ground assault into Gaza, get Israel to agree to daily pauses in the fighting, humanitarian corridors, as well as greater humanitarian assistance. A strategy of haranguing Israel would not have yielded the same dividends.

JS: Some Senate Democrats, namely Bernie Sanders, are now calling for conditions on American support for Israel. The Post called this the Dems’ “Israel dilemma.” There’s increasing pressure from the base. Is this a dilemma? If so, what can the Democrats, specifically Biden, do?

WA: I do think there is a major divide among Democrats. Many on the progressive side of the party are calling for conditions on aid to Israel, something that has not been on the table since President George HW Bush suggested conditioning Israel aid on a halt to the settlements. 

The dilemma for Democrats is more about their internal party coalition: Jewish voters almost always support Democrats in large numbers, but in recent elections so have Arab and Muslim voters. 

Balancing those groups’ interests is difficult right now, if not impossible. Biden clearly has strong personal feelings towards Israel that he has repeatedly expressed, although he has tempered this with expressions of opposition to Islamophobia and decrying the murder of a young Palestinian-American boy near Chicago. However, right now Arab and Muslim voters are upset at Biden and may sit out the 2024 election, which could hurt Democrats in states such as Michigan.

JS: Even if what Israel is doing isn’t genocide — it’s arguable — what young Democrats believe it what really matters, no? What can the Democrats do to change perceptions? Can they change perceptions?

WA: It’s unclear to me whether this issue will still matter as much a year from now to young voters as it does today. Of course, if the war continues and drags out, it may become even more salient and more of a reason for this group to be angry and sit out the election or support a third-party candidate. But if it resolves in some fashion within the next several months, the issues at the forefront in November 2024 may be radically different than those we are discussing today. 

Keep in mind that in November 2019, at this stage prior to the 2020 election, covid had still not entered the US, and yet it became one of the central issues of the 2020 campaign. Getting young voters interested in supporting Biden and the Democratic ticket, or getting any group to do so, may require Democrats to refocus on the issues that benefit them politically, such as abortion and health care, with less attention to divisive subjects like the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

JS: Are we witnessing potential for a generational schism? 

WA: I believe it has exposed significant divisions between generations of Democrats, as well as the splits between moderate and progressive members of the party. Younger voters are less inclined to support Israel in the way Democrats of Biden’s generation were in the past, and of course this current conflict has intensified those feelings. 

It does have the potential to drag down the Democratic ticket in the way Vietnam did in 1968, leading to Hubert Humphrey’s loss against Richard Nixon. But as I said before, we are too far from the election to know what the pivotal issues of the campaign will end up being.


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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