Campus protests raise pressure on Biden to secure Gaza ceasefire

The achievement of a deal may be the only way for the president to avoid a growing schism with younger voters and the progressive Democratic wing

A group of pro-Palestinian students and protesters march at Columbia University in New York.
A group of pro-Palestinian students and protesters march at Columbia University in New York.Roselle Chen (REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

The White House is showing growing impatience over achieving a ceasefire in Gaza. “There just has to be a deal,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby insisted Tuesday regarding ongoing negotiations in Cairo for a pact between Israel and Hamas that would allow a truce in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of more hostages. “If we can get a ceasefire, we can get something more enduring and then maybe end the conflict […] but it has to start with a deal and getting these people back to their families,” he told a press conference. Kirby’s message also carried a domestic political motivation. For the White House, at a time when President Joe Biden is lagging in the polls, reaching an ceasefire agreement is vital ahead of the November election and amid the increasingly widespread pro-Palestinian university protests raging against Washington’s support for the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While it awaits Hamas’ response to the latest proposals in the months-long negotiations, Washington is pressing from all angles for the radical Palestinian militia to accept a deal that would allow the return of more than 30 Israeli hostages held in the Strip in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners and a pause in hostilities.

The talks have entered the final stretch at a decisive moment for the Biden administration: anti-war protests are spreading in U.S. universities and the achievement of a deal may be the only way to avoid a growing schism with younger voters and the progressive Democratic wing, while Washington’s management of the conflict may continue to drag the president down in the polls in the run-up to the November election.

While Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a series of meetings in Tel Aviv with Israeli authorities at the end of his seventh tour of the Middle East since the conflict began, Biden himself is also involved in the negotiations.

On Monday, the president held talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the leaders of the two countries that, together with the United States, are mediating the negotiations. Biden asked the two Arab heads of state to press Hamas to accept the terms of the pact. In a message on X, Biden stated: “The United States will work with Egypt and Qatar to ensure the full implementation of the terms of the deal, and exert all efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas which is now the only obstacle to an immediate ceasefire and relief for civilians in Gaza.”

The situation in Gaza, for Biden, is also a matter of domestic politics. Ending the war in the Strip would give him a huge boost ahead of the November election, and would quell other elements involved in the ongoing conflict — such as the Houthi attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea — or those threatening to lead to an escalation in the region such as the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanese border.

Should the conflict continue, on the other hand, it will complicate Biden’s political prospects: something he can ill afford when polls suggest he is losing ground to Republican candidate Donald Trump. An average of polls collated by the specialized website RealClearPolitics places Biden a point and a half below Trump and in the most disputed states, the former president has increased his advantage to 3.2 points.

A Harvard Youth Poll conducted in April found that Biden only leads his predecessor by eight percentage points among those aged under 30, a segment of the population that traditionally leans toward the Democrats and whose support the president needs in what is expected to be a very tight election. In 2020, Biden held a 23-point lead among young voters.

Concern among Democrats

On Capitol Hill, there is palpable concern among Democratic legislators over the pro-Palestinian university protests — in which hundreds of students have already been arrested — and the possibility that the Republican opposition will take advantage of them to attract at least a segment of public opinion.

“If there is some sort of [ceasefire] in Gaza right now, that would be very helpful,” Democratic member of Congress Jan Schakowsky told Axios, adding the crisis in the Strip is “looming” over the campaign.

Among Democrats there are fears that, in the absence of a breakthrough in the Middle East, the protests will continue with renewed force after the final exam season is over. And even come the August convention in Chicago, the big event of the Democratic political campaign at which Biden will be anointed as the party’s official candidate for the November presidential election. That prospect frightens many, who remember how the last convention held in Chicago, in 1968, went disastrously amid street protests against the Vietnam War.

For the moment, the White House is struggling to explain to the progressive wing of its party what it is doing, and what it is trying to achieve, in Gaza. This week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has been meeting with lawmakers from that group.

Meanwhile, Biden has been keeping a low profile at what in normal times would be an appointment as obligatory as it is plentiful at this time of year: his attendance at college graduation ceremonies. The president has only two such events scheduled, at the West Point Military Academy and Morehouse College in Atlanta, historically the only college for Black students interested in the liberal arts.

Biden has said little specifically about the protests, a task he has delegated to his White House spokespeople. The presidential office has tried to maintain a neutral stance and, while assuring that it defends freedom of assembly while it is peaceful, has also declared itself opposed to any move that might represent an act of antisemitism and condemned the occupation of a building on the Columbia campus by protestors. “Americans have the right to peacefully protest. They have the right to peacefully protest as long as it’s within the law and that it’s peaceful. Forcibly taking over a building is not peaceful,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday at her daily briefing.

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