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Biden faces new Democratic divisions after Israel shift

Some voters in battleground states think Biden’s threat to withhold certain weapons from Israel goes too far. Others say it’s not enough.
President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden at a campaign event in Raleigh, N.C., on March 26.Stephanie Scarbrough / AP file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden significantly shifted his policy toward Israel this week by threatening to withhold U.S. weapons if the Israeli government moves forward with a full-scale invasion of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, while also pledging “ironclad” support for the Jewish state in a speech condemning the rise of antisemitism.

But Biden’s nuanced position has created different fault lines of division within his own Democratic Party. The president now faces a rash of new criticism from some lawmakers and voters in battleground states where his position on Israel carries the most political risk for his efforts to win re-election.

“It’s starting to seem as if he is supporting the wrong side,” Dovid Jacobowitz, a Democrat from Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, told NBC News. Jacobowitz wouldn’t say if he’ll vote for Biden in November.

Nasir Raza, an undecided voter from Scottsdale, Arizona, who voted for Biden in 2020, said the president’s shift in position on Israel “may be too late for a lot of people that I know,” but added: "I may yet still vote for Joe Biden if I see a complete cease-fire, if I see a hope for Palestinians to go on in there, to have their own rights and the homeland for themselves."

Over the seven months since the war in Gaza began, Biden’s staunch backing of Israel has alienated him with some key supporters, including young voters and Arab Americans, and won him accolades from others who appreciated his pro-Israel stance. The shift in his position this week comes at an inflection point in the war. Negotiations over a cease-fire in Gaza in exchange for the release of some hostages still held by Hamas are fragile at best, and Israel is poised to enter Rafah despite Biden’s repeated objections.

Whether his handling of the conflict affects how voters make up their minds in November is still an open question. A key concern for Biden’s re-election effort is that voters who oppose his approach stay home, potentially tipping the scales for former President Donald Trump in crucial battleground states such as Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

This week, Biden articulated positions on Israel that whipsawed from saying on Tuesday the U.S. would be unwavering in its commitment “to the safety of the Jewish people, the security of Israel,” to a day later vowing to withhold weaponry that could be used in an offensive military operation in Rafah. The president, in an interview with CNN, specifically cited large bombs, some of them 2,000 pounds. He also acknowledged he recently halted a new shipment of those bombs to Israel and admitted for the first time since the war began that those U.S. weapons had killed innocent Palestinians.

“Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs,” Biden said Wednesday.

For Ricardo Serna, the president of Young Democrats of Arizona who remains undecided in the 2024 election, Biden’s shift this week is not enough.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Serna said. “But there needs to be a much more permanent solution to this if we don’t want Donald Trump to be re-elected in November. And I fear that unless that happens, we’re going to be seeing another Donald Trump presidency.”

Trump on Thursday said he “wouldn’t do what Biden did” and questioned why Jewish voters would support Biden. “If you’re Jewish, and you vote for him, I say shame on you,” Trump said in an interview with North Carolina’s Spectrum News 1.

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, pushed back on criticism of Biden’s stance. “The argument that somehow we’re walking away from Israel or we’re not willing to help them defeat Hamas just doesn’t comport with the facts,” Kirby told reporters Thursday.

A senior administration official stressed Thursday that Biden is “motivated by our national security interests and by our values, not by politics.”

Reactions from two of Biden’s allies reflect the spectrum of views on Israel and the war in Gaza among Democrats that he must navigate as he seeks to unify his party ahead of the November election.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive Biden surrogate who has disagreed with his handling of the conflict, praised his threat to withhold weapons to Israel. “I do think this step from the president will be well received by many progressives who have been arguing for a course correction,” Khanna said.

Yet Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat from battleground Pennsylvania who is a vociferous supporter of Israel, criticized Biden for signaling he’d halt weapons if Israel launches a major invasion of Rafah.

“Hard disagree and deeply disappointing,” Fetterman said of the president’s policy.

In still another twist in how Biden’s changed position has shaken up views of him from within his own party, one of the sharpest critics of his handling of the conflict in Gaza, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called it “an important turning point in this war.”

“I commend the president for heeding this call to ensure we protect innocent Palestinian lives and refuse to supply weapons to ensure no more civilians in Gaza are killed as a consequence of U.S. bombs,” Jayapal said Thursday.

Jill Zipin, the chairwoman and co-founder of a Jewish political action committee in Pennsylvania that’s endorsed Biden, Democratic Jewish Outreach, said she agrees with his “targeted approach” to Israel.

“I believe that the Biden administration and the Democratic Party has a deep commitment to Israel’s safety, and what they are doing here is acting in Israel’s best interest,” said Zipin.

While many progressive Democrats and younger voters have been critical of Biden’s Israel policy after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack — with some vowing to sit out the November election — others say it ultimately won’t affect their vote.

Alex Toren, a 20-year-old student in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said he disagrees with Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza and hopes his decision to halt a shipment of weapons to Israel last week is a permanent change. (The White House has said no final decision on whether to send those weapons has been made.)

“But the truth is, Trump would be worse,” Toren said. “There is likely, in my opinion, nothing that could happen between now and November that would make me not vote for the president or not go to the polls in November.”

David Jacobson, a Democrat in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, said Biden’s shift in position on Israel this week smacks of a political calculation.

“I thought that Biden’s withholding of military aid to Israel is a serious and appalling misstep,” Jacobson said. “It seems that Biden is probably reacting to political pressures from the left wing of the Democratic Party with an election looming, and it is seriously unfortunate that he would feel the need to publicly compromise on Israel’s security in order to feel more secure about his electability.”

Still, Jacobson said he plans to vote for Biden in November.