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Biden takes fire from all sides after Israel arms move over Rafah

LawBiden takes fire from all sides after Israel arms move over Rafah

President Biden’s decision to pause an arms shipment to Israel is his most dramatic move so far in the war in Gaza — and it may end up pleasing no one.

Republicans have lambasted Biden for the decision, accusing him of abandoning Israel. Former President Trump has made that argument, as did several GOP senators who held a news conference on the issue Thursday.

Israeli politicians have voiced their displeasure — though how much that matters in U.S. domestic politics is questionable given the growing disapproval among the American public for the military actions directed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

Key figures on the left welcomed Biden’s decision, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). 

But Sanders argued the arms delay should be the “first step” in a shift toward more vigorous opposition to “Netanyahu’s horrific war against the Palestinian people.”

In a CNN interview this week, Biden said that if Israel presses ahead with a full-scale invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah, “we’re not going to supply the weapons and artillery shells.” 

The shipment that has been paused includes 1,800 2,000-pound bombs and 1,700 500-pound bombs — ordnance that causes major devastation and, in built-up areas, all but guarantees a significant death toll.

The issue is literally a matter of life and death. But the politics are also dizzyingly complicated.

There seems only a slim chance Biden will ratchet up his restraint of Israel further, though that could change if Netanyahu presses ahead into Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians are sheltered.

Biden’s earlier, more vigorous support for Israel’s actions may mean that die is already cast with some voters. That’s especially true of young people, progressives and Black voters — demographic groups that are more sympathetic toward the Palestinians.

Polling underlines the dilemma. An Economist/YouGov poll released this week showed a clear plurality of the American public sympathizing more with Israel (32 percent) than with the Palestinians (15 percent), while 30 percent said they sympathized with both sides equally and 23 percent said they weren’t sure.

But that picture was reversed among adults younger than 30, who sympathize more with the Palestinians by more than 2-to-1. Democrats and Black Americans also favor the Palestinians over the Israelis.

Many of those voters have recoiled at Biden’s backing for a seven-month Israeli assault on Gaza that has killed around 35,000 Palestinians, displaced about 80 percent of the population and created a humanitarian crisis. 

Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Program and the widow of 2008 GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), recently described the situation in northern Gaza as a “full-blown famine.”

The Israeli assault is in reprisal for the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, which killed more than 1,100 people, mostly civilians. Around 250 hostages were taken, of whom about 100 are estimated to still be held captive and alive.

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller, asked at a Thursday media briefing by The Hill about the criticism that Biden should have taken action at an earlier stage to rein in Israel, said: 

“Our policy responds to the facts on the ground. We made clear at the outset of this conflict we wanted to see Israel defeat Hamas. We wanted to see Israel dismantle Hamas and prevent its ability to launch the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7 again. They’ve largely succeeded in that goal.”

But Miller added, “We also respond to the increasing civilian death toll and while we’ve seen the daily count come down — because of steps that Israel’s taken that we have urged — it hasn’t come down enough.”

Answers like that underline what a complicated knot Biden is trying to unpick. 

His own affinity for Israel — he has at times called himself a Zionist — clashes with an activist base that is vastly more skeptical of Netanyahu. 

If Biden moves toward the more pro-Palestinian side of his own party, he alienates their pro-Israel counterparts and leaves himself open to the charge, from Republicans, of being “soft” on terrorism. 

If he doesn’t, he stirs more internal dissent among Democrats and further inflames the campus protests that recently spread across the U.S. November’s election looms large, as does the possibility of disorder at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.

As if all that wasn’t complicated enough, Biden has to contend with the fact Netanyahu heads a coalition government almost universally seen as the most right-wing in the history of the state of Israel. 

In the wake of Biden’s arms announcement, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir posted a three-character tweet: “Hamas,” a heart symbol and “Biden.” Ben-Gvir has prior criminal convictions for inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization. He received an implicit rebuke for his tweet from Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

Those complexities don’t unduly bother Biden’s GOP critics. On Thursday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) contended that Biden’s “de facto position is for a Hamas victory over Israel.” 

The contention is dismissed as absurd by many on the left, who note Biden’s vigorous support for the foreign aid package passed through Congress last month that provided around $17 billion in aid for Israel.

There is no sign of events on the ground helping Biden get out of the political fix in which he finds himself.

Talks in Cairo aimed at a cease-fire have broken up without agreement in recent days. Israeli forces are reported to be pressing further into Rafah. 

And on Friday, the State Department’s delayed report into Israel’s conduct in Gaza emerged.

The document found that it was “reasonable to assess” that Israel had violated international law in Gaza. Yet it also found that “it is difficult to assess or reach conclusive findings on individual incidents” — a caveat that seems to clear away roadblocks to continued military aid.

It looked like one more example where the Biden administration had given almost everyone grounds for grievance.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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