The staunch support for Israel expressed by U.S. President Joe Biden following the Hamas attack on October 7 is taking a toll on his popularity back home. Calls are growing on the political left and within the Democratic Party itself for a ceasefire and greater humanitarian assistance to Gaza. The president’s ratings have plummeted among his own voters. Support for Gaza and criticism of Israel are concentrated above all among young voters and minorities, two key niches for Democrats, a fact that has triggered alarm bells with just over a year to go before the presidential election. Biden himself has slightly modulated the message in his latest public addresses in the wake of growing damage to Gaza’s civilian population, and perhaps also because of an awareness of the shift in public opinion.
Last Sunday, for example, Biden had a telephone conversation with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. The readout of the conversation provided by the White House noted that the president of the United States “reiterated that Israel has every right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism and underscored the need to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law that prioritizes the protection of civilians.”
Stepping up humanitarian aid has been a demand of a good many Democrats. Shortly after the conflict began, 55 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing their concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, demanding that Israel restore food, water and energy supplies and asking that this country respect international law. “We firmly believe that Israel’s response must take into account the millions of innocent civilians in Gaza who are victims of Hamas and suffer the consequences of its terrorist campaign,” they stated. Two days later, a group of 12 House Democrats, later joined by five others, presented a resolution calling for “an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine.”
That resolution was spearheaded by the only congresswoman of Palestinian origin, Rashida Tlaib, who after the explosion of the al-Ahli al Arab hospital in Gaza addressed Biden on the social app X: “@POTUS this is what happens when you refuse to facilitate a ceasefire & help de-escalate. Your war and destruction only approach has opened my eyes and many Palestinian Americans and Muslims Americans like me. We will remember where you stood.”
Former president Barack Obama himself gave voice to this position of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party: “It is possible for people of good will to champion Palestinian rights and oppose certain Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza without being anti-Semitic,” he wrote in an article. Obama was careful to point out that Biden had asked Israel to respect international law and facilitate access for humanitarian aid, as did 130 congressmen who sent a new letter to the president on October 20 urging the creation of humanitarian corridors and asking for guarantees for the safety of civilians.
Last week, nine Democratic congressmen refused to support a statement of solidarity with Israel that was backed 412 to 10 in the House of Representatives. And 10 Democratic senators, including the independent Bernie Sanders, without going so far as to ask for a ceasefire, have called for “humanitarian pauses” in the war.
In addition to voices within their own party, discontent by leftist voters over Biden’s unapologetic support for Israel can be seen in street demonstrations, in university campuses, and in public demonstrations by activists, non-government groups and unions.
Among the most active groups have been Arab and Muslim associations. Some of them have threatened to withdraw their support for Biden unless he takes immediate steps to ensure a ceasefire in Gaza. The National Muslim Democratic Council, which includes Democratic Party leaders from closely contested states that could decide the election, such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, has urged Biden to use his influence with Israel to negotiate a ceasefire as early as Tuesday. In an open letter titled “2023 Ceasefire Ultimatum,” Muslim leaders pledged to mobilize “Muslim, Arab and allied voters” to “withhold endorsement, support, or votes for any candidate who endorses the Israeli offensive against the Palestinian people.” And on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was interrupted several times at a Senate hearing by citizens calling for an end to the war with their hands painted red.
Although a majority of the population supports aid to Israel, voters in the 18 to 34 age range disapprove (51% against versus 39% in favor) of the United States sending weapons and military equipment to Israel in response to the terrorist attack by Hamas, according to a recent Quinnipiac University survey. In the population as a whole, support for sending weapons is much higher among Republicans — 79% in favor and 19% against — than among Democrats — 59% in favor and 29% against — and independents — 61% in favor and 32% against.
The president’s approval ratings among Democratic voters has slipped from 86% to 75% in one month, a record decline of 11 points in the month that the conflict in the Middle East broke out, according to a survey by Gallup. The field work took place between October 2 and 23. Immediately after the Hamas attack on October 7, Biden promised “unwavering” U.S. support for Israel, and subsequently visited the country on October 18 to reiterate that message. The hospital explosion in Gaza prevented Biden from showing a conciliatory image during his visit to the Middle East. He met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the summit with Arab allies that he had planned in Amman (Jordan) as a counterbalance was canceled.
“Although the survey is not designed to allow for statistically reliable estimates for any subset of the three-week polling period, the daily results strongly suggest that Democrats’ approval of Biden fell sharply in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and Biden’s promise of full support for Israel on the same day,” Gallup said in a statement. “Biden’s current 75% approval rating among Democrats is well below the 86% average from his own party throughout his presidency.” Earlier this year, another Gallup poll showed that, for the first time, Democrats’ sympathies for Palestinians surpassed their sympathy for Israel. For Biden, it’s a difficult balance, and it increases the risk that key voters for his re-election will defect.
Republicans don’t have that problem. The party’s electoral base is fully committed to supporting Israel, and so are its top leaders. At the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) last Saturday, this much was made clear. Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and the rest of the Republican presidential candidates all addressed the convention of the conservative Jewish pressure group. The target of their criticism was American universities for allowing demonstrations in favor of Palestine. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, promised to cancel the visa of foreign students who join demonstrations in favor of Palestinians.
Another proof of the Republicans’ position is that the first initiative that the newly elected president of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, processed was the declaration of solidarity with Israel, from which only one congressman from his group distanced himself. Republicans want to pass an aid bill for Israel that leaves out Ukraine, instead of Biden’s proposed request for funds for both countries, which also included funds for humanitarian aid to Gaza.
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