Can Pro-Israel Democrats Throw Biden a Lifeline?

By | Feb 20, 2024

Jewish politics and power

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1. Saving President Biden

Delegations of family members of Israeli hostages have become a common sight on Capitol Hill. Nearly every week, when Congress is in session, small groups of parents, siblings and children of Israelis abducted by Hamas and held in Gaza tunnels arrive in Washington to meet with lawmakers and make the case for their loved ones.

These meetings, with representatives from both parties, often end with a teary-eyed member of Congress making a heartfelt pledge to do all in their power to pressure the administration, fellow lawmakers and foreign governments to help bring about a deal to release the 100 or so living hostages and the 30 or so bodies of those killed in captivity. 

Last week, however, a different kind of delegation held meetings on Capitol Hill. This one, organized by the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), an organization working to help pro-Israel Democrats get elected, was also made up of several family members of current or former hostages taken by Hamas on October 7. But their mission was different: to make sure that these members, including some progressive Democrats, maintain their support for Joe Biden and back his policy on Israel and the Gaza war.

The mission reflects a growing understanding among Jewish Democratic advocacy organizations that their primary concern right now should be making sure that Biden gets reelected.

Like everyone else, Democratic pro-Israel activists, whether centrists or those leaning to the left, see the latest polls and can hear the chorus of pundits on cable news competing to describe Biden’s dire electoral situation. And with the election clock ticking, the clear conclusion is that they need to mobilize their own base to ensure Biden gets to spend four more years at his current residence.

DMFI’s idea of bringing hostage families to tell their stories, and then making the case that only Biden understands the complexity of the situation and can help resolve it, is one way of reaching this goal.

But other groups, more liberal in their views of Israel, have also made sure to align their message with that of the White House.

J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby, is home for many pro-Israel Democrats who are starting to feel a bit queasy about Biden’s unquestioning support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. But instead of joining critics from the left who threaten not to support Biden and who accuse him of supporting genocide against Palestinian civilians, J Street has chosen to embrace Biden. It is doing so by offering a positive way forward, attempting to pull Biden slightly to the left using ideas already percolating in his administration. The group recently issued a policy statement calling for a shift from military actions to diplomacy and a hostage deal.  This policy echoes ideas voiced by American negotiators and by Biden himself, urging Israel to agree to a six-week cease-fire during which hostages will be returned and long-term diplomatic solutions can be discussed. 

J Street has also latched onto another policy idea being discussed—and being widely leaked to the press—by Biden’s aides: recognizing a Palestinian state and setting in motion a detailed timeline for a two-state solution. By vocally supporting this proposal, J Street may hope to give Biden the necessary political backing to adopt this plan or to implement certain elements of it.

Americans for Peace Now, which also advocates for a two-state solution, made a point of praising several recent moves by Biden, including sanctioning violent settlers, increasing oversight on U.S. military aid to Israel and, naturally, Biden’s shift toward actively promoting Palestinian statehood.

Taken together, all these actions could allow Biden the political space to be more proactive on Israel and more important, at least from an electoral standpoint, making sure that critics from the left remain on board and that progressive Democrats come out and vote for Biden on November 5.

2. Can Pro-Israel Democrats Save Biden? 

No, but they can help a bit with progressive voters.

Think of the messages coming out of the pro-Israel Democratic camp: Biden is the only one who can resolve the Gaza conflict without dragging the world into a major war. Only Biden can use his credibility to direct Israel into ending the war, minimizing Palestinian suffering, and entering a two-state solution process. Look at Biden, who alongside supporting Israel in its war against a merciless terror organization, is also taking action against violent settlers and is increasing scrutiny over arms sales.

If you’re a progressive Democrat in Michigan or Minnesota, in Nevada or Florida, you just might pause and reconsider your decision to not vote for the person some in your camp have referred to as “genocide Joe.” There seems to be a compelling pro-Israel argument that could reach some progressives.

But there’s a catch: If Biden successfully brokers a cease-fire, holds settlers accountable, increases oversight on arms sales and pressures Israel into negotiating a two-state solution, might that cost Biden votes on the other end of the political map? Will mainstream pro-Israel Dems feel he went too far?

It’s unlikely. Biden’s strong record on Israel, coupled with the understanding that no American president has really ever gone through with pressuring Israel into concessions, should be enough to keep the centrists on board.


3. How Will the War Play Out in Pro-Israel Republican Circles?

Republicans have no real problem with the Israel issue. Their voters, with the exception of some Rand Paul-style isolationists, are fully supportive of a robust American pro-Israel approach to the Gaza war.

Oh, except for one guy. Donald Trump.

The former president, who has branded himself as “the most pro-Israel president,” recently suggested that U.S. foreign aid, of the kind now being discussed for Ukraine and for Israel, should be framed as a loan and that if recipients of the aid “drop us like a dog,” and no longer ally with the United States, they should be required to pay back the loan.

This is clearly not a policy any supporter of Israel would like to see, even though it is hard to envision a situation where Israel “drops” America “like a dog.” Simply put, if Israel would have to pay back the billions of dollars it receives from the United States, the country would plunge into financial despair.

But this proposal is not about to cost Trump any votes or funds from pro-Israel constituents. It didn’t even cause a ripple of questioning or disagreement. Even Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the Senate and a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, embraced Trump’s idea.

4. Michiganders Want to “Uncommit”

The cost of Biden’s support for Israel will come to a test next week when Michigan holds its primary elections. Biden, virtually unchallenged, will clearly win, but his critics, many of them from the state’s large Arab-American community, believe they can use the vote to make him notice their call and change course on Gaza.

Several progressive groups are running a campaign urging Michigan Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in the primary ballot. They believe that if they can reach 10,000 uncommitted votes, their message will no longer be ignored.

Why 10,000?

That is roughly the margin in which Trump won Michigan in 2016. If Biden wants to get reelected, they argue, he better listen to Michigan voters who disagree with his policy on Gaza, because 10,000 votes are enough to win or lose the state.

5. When Dems and Republicans Unite

It was a rare moment of unity, but one that helped restore hope that both parties can join forces when it comes to some of the worst human tragedies.

Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning Hamas’s use of rape and sexual violence against Israelis on October 7 and afterwards. The resolution was presented by a bipartisan slate of lawmakers and won 418 votes, with no one objecting. Only one member, Democrat Rashida Tlaib voted “present,” arguing that the resolution failed to acknowledge sexual abuse of Palestinians.

Before the vote, members of both parties, led by Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, hosted a meeting on the issue in which they heard from Israeli police officers who collected and analyzed evidence of rape and sexual assault by Hamas during its October 7 attack. Wasserman Schultz, visibly shaken by the testimonies, which were given behind closed doors, struggled to hold back her tears when speaking at the public session of the meeting. “I have never seen more sadistic evil perpetrated against another human than in the photos and videos that we saw earlier this morning,” she said.

The House resolution is declarative and nonbinding but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle noted that it is necessary in order to fight the ongoing effort to deny these horrific crimes.

Credit: Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0) / U.S. Secretary of Defense/Lisa Ferdinando (CC BY 2.0)

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