OPINION | Why the war in the Middle East is politically risky for Biden

As the war in the Middle East intensifies following Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack on Oct. 7, President Joe Biden finds himself in a political bind.

His instinctive and strong belief in Israel’s right to defend itself from attack is costing him support from members of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and elsewhere. Yet if he is less supportive of Israel, or even tempers his commitments by pointing out the need to safeguard the lives of Palestinian people, he could lose large segments of America’s Jewish population and other political moderates.

Initially, Biden seemed to pay little attention to these political ramifications. He gave Israel unequivocal and full-throated support in remarks at the White House, saying “there is no justification for terrorism. There is no excuse.”

The president said that Hamas was “pure, unadulterated evil” and labeled its campaign against Israel “an atrocity on an appalling scale.” He insisted that the security of the United States was at stake and announced a deployment of military assets to the region.

“Like every nation in the world,” Biden continued, “Israel has a right to respond, indeed has a duty to respond, to these vicious attacks. […] Let there be no doubt, the United States has Israel’s back.”

He emphasized his support by traveling to Israel on Oct. 18, and embracing Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu both literally and figuratively.

Recently, however, there have been subtle but noticeable changes in the president’s position.

As an Oct. 27 Reuters report notes, “Biden and his team have markedly shifted their tone on the Israel-Hamas crisis in recent days, moving from unfettered support of Israel to emphasizing the need to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza ahead of a looming Israeli ground invasion.”

A U.S. official quoted anonymously in the article attributes the change to the fact that “The administration had not expected Palestinian casualties to mount as fast as they have — now more than 7,000 dead in Gaza, local officials say — or for the humanitarian situation to deteriorate so rapidly.”

In a speech to the nation on Oct. 20, the president went out of his way to say, “Like so many others, I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of Palestinian life, including the explosion at a hospital in Gaza — which was not done by the Israelis.”

Biden added, “We mourn every innocent life lost. We can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians who only want to live in peace and have an opportunity,” and reiterated his support for “a two-state solution” to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But even as his position evolves, Biden faces a complex political situation — the domestic political fallout has been rapid and dramatic, and it points to new trouble in his already troubled re-election bid.

On Oct. 26, Gallup reported that “President Joe Biden’s job approval rating among Democrats has tumbled 11 percentage points in the past month to 75%, the worst reading of his presidency from his own party. This drop has pushed his overall approval rating down four points to 37%, matching his personal low.”

Gallup also noted that “Biden’s approval among independents has declined four points, to 35%.”

This loss of support from members of his own party reflects the fact that sympathy for the Palestinians now is greater among self-identified Democrats than is support for Israel. Once a reliably pro-Israel group, a March 2023 Gallup survey found that “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%.”

In 2020, Jewish voters chose Biden over GOP incumbent Donald Trump by a margin of 77 percent to 21 percent. If the shifting sympathies documented by Gallup cost Biden Jewish support in 2024, his prospects for re-election would be severely damaged.

Following the Oct. 7 attack, support for Biden’s policies in the Middle East among independents was soft at best. While 54 percent of independents thought the United States should publicly support Israel, 33 percent thought that our government shouldn’t say or do anything.

In other worrying news, Gallup found a sharp generational divide in sympathy for Israel. The percentage of people “sympathizing more with the Israelis than the Palestinians […] is solidly positive among older generations, including baby boomers (+46 points), Generation X (+32) and the Silent Generation (people who were born between 1925 and 1945) (+31).”

“By contrast,” Gallup notes, “millennials are now evenly divided, with 42% sympathizing more with the Palestinians and 40% with the Israelis, yielding a -2 net-Israel sympathy score.”

Not surprisingly, responses to the Hamas attack reflect this deep generational divide. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll found that fewer than half of Gen Z and millennials believe this country should publicly support Israel. This compared with 63 percent of Gen Xers, 83 percent of Baby Boomers and 86 percent of people born between 1925 and 1945.

Polling of college students provides more evidence of this sharp generational divide. Only 52 percent of the college students surveyed blamed the events on Oct. 7 on Hamas. “Another 11 blamed it on Israel, 12% on other Middle Eastern governments and another 25% blamed it on someone else.”

Biden cannot afford to lose support among younger voters who turned out in record numbers in 2020 — a large majority of whom cast their votes for Biden. But 2023 presents a different picture, with young voters already souring on the president prior to his embrace of Israel.

Recent news reports also suggest Biden’s support for Israel has stirred up anger among Muslin and Arab Americans in states like Michigan. In 2020 he received the lion share of their vote, which helped him carry the state in 2020.

And, as the New York Times notes, even more concerning for Biden than these divisions is the fact that “in the halls of Congress, the most critical Democratic voices are Black and Hispanic Democrats who helped fuel his 2020 victory. As of Thursday, all 18 House members who had signed onto a resolution calling for an ‘immediate de-escalation and cease-fire in Israel and occupied Palestine’ were people of color.”

Democratic Rep. Cori Bush (Mo.) went so far as to call for an end to all U.S. aid to Israel, while her colleague Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said “this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue” unless the funds are cut off.

For a president whose 2020 margin of victory in swing states was razor-thin and who already faces a substantial enthusiasm gap in the forthcoming election, reactions such as these among both his core supporters and independent voters are bad news. The tragic war in the Middle East complicates Biden’s already precarious political situation and poses real difficulties as he refines his reelection strategy.

A lot can happen between now and Election Day next year, but it may turn out that Joe Biden’s handling of the Middle East situation will be crucial to his prospects for holding on to the White House.

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