President Joe Biden’s strong support for Israel is one of his most deeply held beliefs, dating back to his childhood. It also may pay political dividends as he ramps up his reelection bid.
In emotional, almost-daily comments since the Hamas attack early Saturday killed more than 1,000 Israelis, Biden has highlighted the anti-Semitic motivation of the attacks, vowed full support for Israel and sent weapons and naval ships to back it up.
His stance has earned him praise from one-time critics in the US and Israel, helping neutralize Republican attacks on his Middle East policy as too soft. At the same time, his moves help position him firmly in the pro-Israel mainstream going into next year’s election, sidelining at least for the moment left-wing voices in his own party who had attacked the US ally and threatened to alienate many voters.
Those progressive Democrats had pushed the party to limit aid to Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. That left an opening for Republicans to make inroads with pro-Israel voters.
But as the scope of Hamas’ brutality in last weekend’s assault has become clear, the Israel-skeptics among Democrats have been marginalized. Calls from progressives, such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush, for an immediate cease-fire and de-escalation, as well as Representative Rashida Tlaib’s urging to stop funding Israel, drew rebukes from Democratic Party leaders. The White House called them “repugnant” and “disgraceful.”
“The president was not changing the stance of the Democratic Party, he was revealing what has long been the stance of the Democratic Party in the clearest possible terms,” New York Democratic Representative Ritchie Torres, a vocal Israel supporter, said in an interview.
In a trio of passionate speeches, Biden denounced any “downplaying of Hamas’ atrocities” and blaming Israel as “unconscionable” and offered support to the US Jewish community against threats stemming from the attack.
That was enough to win praise from Donald Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who Thursday posted on social media that he’s “deeply grateful” to the administration for the “the moral, tactical, diplomatic and military support” that it has provided Israel over the past few days.
Trump, meanwhile, gave Democrats fodder to argue the former president isn’t a viable alternative for pro-Israel voters. In a speech late Wednesday, he criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not joining him in a 2020 drone strike against an Iranian military leader and called the Iran-backed Hezbollah “very smart.”
The White House and Democrats used those comments as a chance to go after the current Republican frontrunner.
“After his unconscionable and insulting comments regarding Israel in its darkest hour, it’s long past time for Republicans to stop falsely claiming that there’s anything pro-Israel about Donald Trump,” said Halie Soifer, chief executive officer of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.
Biden traces his support for Israel to when his father taught him about the horrors of the Holocaust. He recounted Wednesday to a room of Jewish leaders how he took his children and grandchildren to visit the site of the Dachau Nazi concentration camp to see firsthand their crimes against humanity.
The president also recalled meeting decades ago with the late Israeli premier Golda Meir, whom he said told him Israel is the only guarantor against another mass murder of Jews.
“Silence is complicity,” Biden told the Jewish leaders. “I refuse to be silent, and I know you refuse to be silent as well.”
Nathan Diament, a top official at the Orthodox Union, representing Judaism’s most religiously observant denomination, surprised some in the room by standing after Biden’s concluded his Wednesday remarks to thank him for speaking “so clearly in support of Israel, so clearly in support of the Jewish people.”
Roughly seven in 10 Jews identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to a survey of Jewish Americans released by the Pew Research Center in 2021.
But Biden’s ability to maintain support for Israel and tamp down divisions within his party could be tested in the coming weeks and months, as Israel pushes ahead with a campaign in Gaza that could cause large numbers of casualties and renew cease-fire calls.
“It is only a matter of time before the narrative shifts harshly against Israel,” said Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Biden needs to not waver in that support because that can have profound military and political consequences for Israel.”
As elected Democratic leaders remain supportive of Israel, their voters have grown more skeptical of the US alliance with Israel.
Democrats’ sympathy for Palestinians grew by 11 percentage points over the past year, and more sympathize with Palestinians than Israelis, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February. Overall, however, most Americans still side with Israelis.
Since the Hamas attacks, tensions have roiled college campuses, home to many young liberal voters, with student groups clashing with administrators over demonstrations that have blamed Israel for the violence.
“We’re not seeing more members of Congress speak out in support of Palestinian rights and equality just because they think that,” said Matt Duss, a former foreign policy adviser to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “They are saying that because they have voters and constituents and movements who they work with who also think that.”