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Biden is increasingly at odds with other Democrats over Israel

Some Democratic lawmakers are criticizing Israel’s actions against Hamas, while others are following President Biden in saying it has a right to defend itself. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

DEARBORN, Mich. — President Biden is increasingly coming into conflict with fellow Democrats as he resists a shift in his party toward a tougher stand on Israel and stronger support for the Palestinians, a disconnect highlighted Tuesday by Biden's visit to a region that is a center of Arab American life in the United States.

Biden traveled to the Detroit area to tour an electric vehicle plant and promote his infrastructure plan, an effort to bolster his domestic agenda at a moment of deadly conflict in the Middle East. Arab American protesters gathered at a mosque in Dearborn in advance of the visit, eager to demonstrate their anger at Biden’s approach to the conflict.

The president faced calls from at least one member of Congress to devote time during Tuesday’s trip to meeting with Arab Americans because the plant Biden visited is in an area that is 90 percent Arab American. But the White House announced no such meetings.

Many Democrats remain staunchly supportive of Israel and the actions it says it must take in self-defense. But as a growing number of Democrats urged a cease-fire over the past week, Biden for days refused to join them, waiting until after his third conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cautiously support such a move.

What’s behind the violence in Israel and Gaza?

The president’s top spokeswoman has repeatedly declined to say whether Israel’s military response in the Gaza Strip was appropriate to the provocation, while many Democrats have not been shy about calling it disproportionate. And Biden and his advisers have stuck to an assertion that liberal Democrats reject as insufficient, the notion that Israel has a right to defend itself.

That has led to sharp criticism of the Biden administration from some Democrats, which otherwise has been rare.

“The president needs to tell Netanyahu to stop,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who is part of a new generation of liberal Democrats. While Biden’s cease-fire comments were a marginally positive step, Khanna said, “I think it has to be much stronger.”

Khanna called on Biden to meet with Arab Americans in Michigan on Tuesday and set a deadline for Netanyahu to end his military assault in the Gaza Strip.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who represents Dearborn, said that Arab Americans were incensed by Israeli military action near one of the holiest Muslim sites in Jerusalem last week, and that many of her constituents wanted to convey their concern to Biden.

“I’ve lived in this community for 30 years. These are very intense, passionate and caring people, and they did not believe that in the midst of a war in the Middle East that their voices should not be heard because many of them have family there, and they are deeply concerned,” Dingell said in an interview.

Biden was greeted Tuesday by local Democrats, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D), the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress and a vocal critic of his Middle East policy. The two shook hands shortly after Biden arrived at the airport and spoke for several minutes.

In his comments at a Ford auto plant, Biden addressed Tlaib and mentioned family members she has in the Middle East. “I pray that your grandmom and family are well. I promise you, I’m going to do everything to see that they are on the West Bank. You’re a fighter. And God, thank you for being a fighter.”

Changing Democratic attitudes have been evident across the country in recent days. Rep. Cori Bush, a freshman Missouri Democrat and Black Lives Matter activist, delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor, promising to “fight for our rights in Palestine and in Ferguson,” tying the conflict in the Middle East to battles for racial justice at home.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who in recent years has become one of the most prominent elected officials among liberal Democrats, penned a widely circulated op-ed lambasting the Democratic leadership for being too accommodating toward Israel. “Palestinian lives matter,” he wrote in the New York Times.

Even longtime Israel hawks such as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) have shown a sensitivity to the shifting winds in their party with carefully worded comments suggesting they would not always march in lockstep with the Israeli government. All three have a strong Jewish presence in their constituencies.

“It’s certainly been years in the coming,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal, peace-oriented Jewish organization. “The Democratic Party is clearly now willing and able to speak out in a much more balanced manner about issues related to Israel.”

Biden’s strategy on Israel is a departure from a pattern of following his party’s leftward shift on a range of other issues. With an ambitious climate-change agenda, sweeping anti-poverty investments, calls to raise taxes on the wealthy and a decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Biden has embraced many of the hallmarks of the modern liberal movement.

Aides and allies said those positions reflect his strong personal beliefs and, in many ways, are consistent with the campaign he ran. They noted that in other ways, Biden, who has spent decades in the corridors of power, has not adopted the ideas of the left with which he does not agree. He does not support Medicare-for-all, free tuition at public colleges and universities for all students or calls to defund the police.

The current Israel-Hamas conflict, now in its second week, is testing Biden’s ability to avoid entanglement in an area that has been volatile for decades. A focal point for past presidents, it has not drawn the same level of interest from Biden. He has not centered his global agenda in the Middle East, nor has he ambitiously spoken of bringing peace to the region as his predecessors have done.

But now, “the Middle East came back and found Joe Biden,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six secretaries of state, from both parties, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Miller said Biden’s reluctance to join other Democrats’ condemnation of Israel suggests he sees no upside to “having a big fight with Israel.” In Miller’s analysis, Biden is trying to resolve the situation quickly without sending shock waves through the region that could take months or years to calm, because he does not want to distract from his push for a sweeping infrastructure bill and other priorities.

Still, Miller and others suggested that Biden could be building leverage behind the scenes in his private discussions with Netanyahu. White House press secretary Jen Psaki emphasized this week that the administration sees little to be gained from public posturing.

“Our focus and our strategy here is to work through quiet, intensive diplomacy,” Psaki said Tuesday, adding that Biden “has been doing this long enough to know that the best way to end an international conflict is typically not to debate it in public.”

She said Biden and his advisers have held 60 calls in the past week with leaders “in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and across the region.”

But elsewhere in the Democratic Party, a vocal contingent is speaking out more loudly than ever about what it sees as the need to hold Israel accountable. Democrats attribute this change to several factors, including a generational shift in Congress, anger at Netanyahu’s hard-right policies and the party’s sharpened focus on human rights and racial justice.

Ben-Ami said he thinks that liberal politicians of color — who have become more influential in recent years — have a keen sensitivity to structural racism and challenges faced by various disadvantaged communities, leading them to sympathize with Palestinians living in Gaza and Israel.

Some liberal and Black Lives Matter activists have made that link explicit, framing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a form of police brutality.

“As someone who has been brutalized by police, I continue to stand in strong solidarity with Palestinians rising up against military, police, and state violence,” Bush tweeted last week.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the most recognizable leaders in the liberal movement, tweeted, “If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to?”

Even longtime Democratic defenders of Israel have shifted their position at least slightly in recent days, without adopting the strong language of the nation’s more forceful critics. Schumer embraced a bipartisan call for a cease-fire before Biden did. Nadler joined other Jewish Democrats in a letter that condemned both Hamas’s attacks on Israel and the deaths of Palestinian civilians. And Menendez expressed concern about some of Israel’s military actions.

On Capitol Hill, the top leaders in both parties weighed in Tuesday on Biden’s support for a cease-fire.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed that “after more than a week of hostilities, it has become even more apparent that a cease-fire is necessary.” Minutes later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denounced a cease-fire as folly.

“Those who are calling for a cease-fire . . . are basically suggesting that there is moral equivalency” between Hamas and Israel, he argued to reporters, adding, “There is no moral equivalency here.”

The shift in many Democrats’ approach to Israel is in some sense the continuation of a change that was apparent during the 2020 presidential campaign. At a J Street event in 2019, several of the top presidential candidates, including Sanders, who is Jewish, embraced the idea of making U.S. aid to Israel contingent on its improved treatment of Palestinians.

Biden, who participated in the event, notably did not bring up the notion of conditioning aid in such a way. The Biden administration recently approved the sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to Israel, and while the action came before the current hostilities, it frustrated some Democrats who are critical of Netanyahu.

Overall, Biden’s rise to the presidency has relieved some supporters of Israel who were alarmed by the comments of other Democrats.

“We appreciate the steadfast support from President Biden and his administration for Israel’s efforts to defeat terrorism,” said Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Democrats and Republicans in Congress have demonstrated that solidarity with Israel through well over 300 statements of support during the current conflict.”

He added, “While some members of Congress have sought to undermine that support, the broad bipartisan majority in Congress remains firmly behind Israel.”

Sullivan reported from Washington. Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.