Biden’s old-school stance on Israel is putting him at odds with members of his own party

Biden Netanyahu
Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2010. Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
  • Biden’s stance on Israel is increasingly putting him at odds with other Democrats.
  • Top progressives have called out his defense of Israel amid a mounting death toll, mainly in Gaza.
  • A number of Democrats are pushing for the US to condition or limit aid to Israel.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden entered the White House amid a drastic shift in discourse on US-Israeli relations in Washington, DC, with Democrats increasingly breaking the taboo of criticizing America’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Biden, who continued to offer unwavering support to Israel this week as it hammered Gaza with devastating airstrikes amid escalating violence in the region, is swimming against the current – and has been for some time. And he’s now perhaps the first president in US history to be criticized by members of his own party for upholding the status quo when it comes to US policy and rhetoric toward Israel.

As the death toll mounted and Israeli leaders rebuffed talks of a ceasefire, the president on Wednesday defended Israel’s right to self-defense.

“Israel has the right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory,” Biden told reporters, alluding to the rockets being fired at Israel by Hamas and other militant groups.

“My hope is that we’ll see this coming to a conclusion sooner than later,” he added.

Biden’s comments would not have been out of the ordinary for a US president a decade ago, and his general stance toward Israel is far less extreme than that of former President Donald Trump – who adopted a lopsided pro-Israel policy and pushed for a “peace plan” that completely excluded Palestinians. But the conversation on Israel in the US has changed, and Biden’s approach to the matter is becoming more outdated by the day.

AOC: ‘Biden reinforces the false idea that Palestinians instigated this cycle of violence’

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York on Wednesday took to Twitter and ripped into Biden over his “blanket statement,” adding that it provided “little context or acknowledgement of what precipitated this cycle of violence – namely, the expulsions of Palestinians and attacks on Al Aqsa.”

-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 12, 2021

The recent violence in the region is a product of a multitude of convoluted factors, with Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories at the heart of the tensions. Top human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Jerusalem-based organization B’Tselem, have denounced Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a form of apartheid.

More immediately, as Ocasio-Cortez said, the contentious dynamic was exacerbated by efforts to push Palestinians out of a neighborhood in East Jerusalem as as well as an Israeli police raid at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The raid left hundreds of Palestinians injured.

Ocasio-Cortez said Biden’s remarks dehumanized Palestinians and implied the US will “look the other way at human rights violations.”

“It’s wrong,” she added. “By only stepping in to name Hamas’ actions – which are condemnable – & refusing to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians, Biden reinforces the false idea that Palestinians instigated this cycle of violence. This is not neutral language. It takes a side – the side of occupation.”

Gaza
Palestinians carry the body of a child found in the rubble of a house belonging to the Al-Tanani family, that was destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Abdel Kareem Hana/Associated Press

Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez are urging Biden to take a more nuanced stance on the conflict and recognize that it’s possible to condemn Hamas rocket attacks while also calling out Israel for human rights violations and disproportionate military actions. Her criticism of Biden on Thursday added to a chorus of progressive voices excoriating the administration over its tone on the violence, accusing it of showing a lack of concern for Palestinians, especially children.

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar earlier in the week said the administration was “devoid of empathy and concern for human suffering.”

-Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 10, 2021

On top of the criticism of the administration’s general rhetoric, 25 House Democrats on Wednesday signed a letter calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to denounce the impending evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

There’s a growing rift in the Democratic party over Israel

For years, it was essentially political suicide for anyone in Washington, DC, to even hint at criticizing Israel. Doing so often led to allegations of antisemitism, and sometimes still does.

But a shift began around five years ago, in large part because of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The Vermont senator has perhaps done more to normalize criticizing Israel than any other lawmaker. He’s pushed for a more balanced approach to US-Israel relations and a greater concern for Palestinian rights. And when people, including former Vice President Mike Pence, sought to accuse him of being biased against Israel and siding with its enemies, their attacks fell flat. Sanders is Jewish, briefly lived in Israel in the 1960s, and his father lost many family members during the Holocaust.

During a presidential debate in 2016, Sanders decried Israel for the “disproportionate” use of military force in Gaza in 2014. At the time, reports on Sanders’ debate performance said he was taking a “sledgehammer to the political status quo on Israel” and “shattered an American taboo on Israel.”

By 2020, when Sanders was once again running for president, other leading Democratic presidential candidates – Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg (now Biden’s secretary of transportation) – joined him in supporting conditioning aid to Israel in relation to the peace process and occupation. But Biden was not on board, and along the campaign trail referred to the proposal as “bizarre” and “outrageous.”

Gaza
Heavy smoke and fire surround Al-Sharouk tower as it collapses during an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City on May 12, 2021. Qusay Dawud/Getty Images

Democrats in Congress continued to push for potentially limiting aid when Biden got to the White House.

In April, Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota introduced a bill designed to ensure that the $3.8 billion in annual military aid the US gives to Israel is not used to “support the military detention of Palestinian children, the unlawful seizure, appropriation, and destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the West Bank, or further annexation of Palestinian land in violation of international law.”

The bill was endorsed by over a dozen members of Congress alongside numerous human rights organizations and advocacy groups.

The Democratic party’s shift to the left on Israel has also seemingly occurred among its voters. A Gallup poll in March found that 53% of Democrats favored placing more pressure on Israel to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict – marking an increase of 10 percentage points since 2018.

In recent days, top Democrats have doubled down on the calls to condition aid to Israel as the situation in the region has grown more dire.

“To protect lives, the Biden Administration must demand that Israel end these acts and move away from annexation and towards a two-state solution,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a tweet on Tuesday. “U.S. funding shouldn’t be used to further human rights abuses.

In short, this week’s violence is exposing a growing rift in the Democratic party when it comes to Israel, and Biden is facing mounting pressure to get with the times.