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Israel-Hamas fighting poses test for Biden and exposes rifts among Democrats

Security forces on patrol in Lod, Israel. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

The worst violence in years between the Israeli military and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip poses the first major foreign policy challenge for President Biden, while exposing a growing divide among Democrats over criticism of Israel and giving Republicans an opening to criticize the president’s approach.

The days of deadly cross-border rocket attacks and airstrikes approached all-out war on Wednesday amid international calls for calm and a flurry of diplomatic efforts from Washington. The White House said U.S. officials have made more than 25 calls to Israeli, Palestinian and regional Arab leaders in the past few days, as well as other diplomatic outreach.

The effort risks drawing the United States into just the kind of Middle East morass that Biden hoped to avoid. His foreign policy strategy is premised on a shift toward confronting China and away from an emphasis on the Middle East and Europe.

Death toll climbs at Israel, Hamas slide toward war

Biden said Wednesday that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and expressed optimism that the fighting would end quickly.

President Biden on May 12 said Israel had a right to defend itself and that he hoped the violence would be "closing down sooner than later." (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

“My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later,” he said at the White House. “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”

Biden refrained from criticizing Israeli actions, but a White House account of their conversation said he had addressed the unrest in Jerusalem.

“He shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace,” the White House statement said.

Biden briefed Netanyahu on U.S. diplomatic efforts with several countries including Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, the statement said. Those nations maintain ties to Hamas and can be go-betweens. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist group and avoids direct contact.

Other Democrats had already weighed in either to support Israel’s military response, or condemn it.

Israel maintains a deep bench of staunch defenders in the Democratic leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who have all emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself.

“The barrage of rocket attacks from Hamas are terrorism and no country should have to tolerate this kind of threat against its population. These brazen acts threaten the safety & security of Israelis & Palestinians,” Menendez tweeted Tuesday.

But a new crop of younger lawmakers willing to challenge the party’s pro-Israel orthodoxy has put pressure on the Biden administration and congressional leaders amid polling showing growing skepticism among Democrats about Israeli actions.

“We cannot just condemn rockets fired by Hamas and ignore Israel’s state-sanctioned police violence against Palestinians — including unlawful evictions, violent attacks on protestors & the murder of Palestinian children,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) tweeted. “U.S. aid should not be funding this violence.”

His message was retweeted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), who along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has spotlighted Israeli aggression in the conflict in ways that go beyond conventional Democratic statements blaming both sides.

“We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Israeli forces are forcing families from their homes during Ramadan and inflicting violence,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet on Saturday, referring to a neighborhood where a Jewish settler group is seeking to evict Arab families.

Confrontation there and elsewhere in Jerusalem over the past week helped ignite the wider violence, when Hamas began firing rockets in retaliation for what it called Israeli aggression. Hamas is a Palestinian faction that split from the larger Palestinian Authority and has controlled Gaza since 2006. Israel has largely blockaded the seaside territory because of rocket attacks.

Here’s how rockets from Gaza challenge Israel’s air defense system

“In the 40-odd years I’ve been working on these issues full time, I’ve never seen this level of support for Palestinian rights and challenging the status quo,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, speaking of grass-roots Democratic support for the Palestinians. “This was an issue the Biden administration hoped to avoid. Now they can’t avoid it.”

The change in atmosphere on the issue is also the result of the last election cycle and the exit of long-serving pro-Israel members.

The former top Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot L. Engel, was unseated last year by a more liberal candidate, Jamaal Bowman, replacing a reflexive pro-Israel lawmaker with a former principal from the Bronx with fewer reservations about putting a spotlight on alleged atrocities carried out by Israeli forces.

While condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks, Bowman has criticized Israel’s evictions of Palestinians and retaliatory airstrikes.

“Violently evicting families from their homes in which generations have lived is not an act of peace. A show of strong force during prayer is not an act of peace. Destroying holy sites is not an act of peace,” Bowman said in a statement. “Hamas rocket attacks are not an act of peace. Israeli government airstrikes are not an act of peace.”

Changes in attitude among members of Congress about the conflict reflect a broader shift among rank-and-file Democratic voters, analysts said.

A Gallup poll in March found that the majority of Democrats now take the position that the United States should be applying more pressure to Israel to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The 53 percent opting for more pressure on the Israelis is up from 43 percent in 2018 and no more than 38 percent in the decade before that, marking a substantive change in Democrats’ perspective on U.S. policy,” the report found.

“Congress is beginning to reflect the demographic changes in how the public views [the] Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Zogby said. “You’re seeing a much more diverse group on the Democratic side who reflect where the base of the Democratic Party is going from Black and Latino to young people and professional women. Their attitudes in polls are radically different than White middle-class Americans. Biden won because of that demographic split, and the question is, does that effect how he governs.”

A key source of frustration for some Democrats is the Biden administration’s sluggish pace in overturning several signature policies of the Trump era favored by pro-Israel conservatives. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de facto embassy to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. That mission was absorbed into the U.S. Embassy to Israel under Trump’s orders.

Trump also oversaw the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington. Despite Biden’s promise to reopen the offices, both remain closed, and the president has yet to nominate an ambassador to Israel, which critics said put Washington at a disadvantage in managing the escalating conflict.

Republicans, who have become an increasingly influential part of American political support for Israel, leaped to defend Israel and denounce Democrats as falling short.

“The Republican Party stands with Israel, a nation that has every right to defend itself against violence and the barrage of rockets from Hamas,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.

“These attacks prove that Biden’s weak leadership is reversing the historic progress the Trump administration made towards peace in the region and has signaled to known terrorist organizations, like Hamas, that they can get away with attacking our nation’s strongest ally in the Middle East. It is vital that the United States stand with Israel and the Jewish community.”

Nikki Haley, a U.N. ambassador under Trump and a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, went further.

“Hamas has watched Biden downgrade our relationship with Israel and then restore funding to the PA and the UN’s most corrupt agency without reform,” Haley tweeted, referring to the Palestinian Authority and the U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinians.

“Now, they are testing him. While terrorist rockets rain down on Israeli civilians, Biden is nowhere to be found,” Haley wrote.

On Wednesday evening, 44 Republican senators led by Marco Rubio (Fla.) and James E. Risch (Idaho) wrote to Biden to urge solidarity with Israel and a halt to nuclear negotiations with Iran, which supports Hamas with money and weapons.

The State Department account of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s conversation with Netanyahu was carefully worded to note both a traditional offer of support to Israel and a measure of U.S. backing for Palestinians.

“The Secretary emphasized the need for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live in safety and security, as well as enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy,” the statement said.

Blinken faced repeated questions from reporters on Wednesday about what he would do differently in light of both sides ignoring his calls for a de-escalation.

As the death toll climbs, Blinken said the United States would continue to do what it has been doing, “which is to be engaged across the board.”

“Our diplomacy from senior officials across the administration I hope will help have an impact,” he said at the State Department briefing room.

The Biden administration’s most extensive comments on the conflict, which have come during the daily briefings at the State Department, initially offered particularly strong backing for Israel.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned a Hamas rocket attack “in the strongest possible terms.” When asked if the United States would also condemn an Israeli airstrike that killed nine people, including three Palestinian children, Price declined to do so.

The next day, however, Price spoke about the Israeli strike, noting that at the time the United States didn’t have “independent verification of what had transpired.” While refraining from condemning the strike, he said that after seeing pictures of children killed in the assault, he could “sense the suffering.”

“The loss of civilian life in these operations is something that we deeply regret,” Price said.

But the administration remains far from embracing the type of criticisms progressive lawmakers have directed at the Israeli government. Omar, for instance, has said the deputy mayor of Jerusalem’s defense of proposed evictions of Palestinians amounted to an endorsement of “ethnic cleansing.” Price said the claim was “not something that our analysis supports.”

The spiraling violence comes as the Biden administration is also trying to head off panic about a gas shortage following a ransomware attack on a key East Coast pipeline and tamp down fears of inflation.

Asked whether the confluence of events this week has put the White House on its back foot, press secretary Jen Psaki sounded unruffled.

“That’s what we’re made for here,” she said Wednesday, adding that “you have to prepare, be prepared, to juggle multiple challenges, multiple crises at one time, and that’s exactly what we’re doing at this moment.”