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Biden faces competing pressures in responding to the attacks on Israel

The left wing of the Democratic Party has become increasingly critical of Israel, and it hinted at a willingness to remain so even after the attacks.
President Joe Biden speaks on the terrorist attacks in Israel at the White House in Washington, DC. on Oct. 7, 2023.
President Joe Biden speaks about the attacks in Israel at the White House on Saturday. Samuel Corum / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In the hours after Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel, President Joe Biden offered full-throated support for Israel’s pledge to wipe out its enemy. In what looks to be a prolonged war, though, Biden, a Democrat, is sure to face competing pressures that will make it harder to keep his commitment.

Biden has given no hint that he’ll second-guess the Israeli government’s plans to defend the country. He quickly ordered an aircraft carrier group closer to Israel and moved to supply Israel with needed munitions. Eleven Americans were killed in the attacks — one more reason the two old allies stand “shoulder-to-shoulder,” Biden said in a statement Monday.

“We remember the pain of being attacked by terrorists at home,” he said, invoking the attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001.

Inside Biden’s party, progressives have already signaled that if the civilian Palestinian death toll rises, they’ll insist that he press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scale back the lethality of the counterattack.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said in a statement Monday, “I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day.” She then called on Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza and dismantle what she called Israel’s “apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.”

While Tlaib was the first to issue such a pronouncement, others are likely to follow suit. She is part of a vocal wing of the Democratic Party that has become increasingly critical of Israel and U.S. aid to it. She and several other progressive lawmakers boycotted a speech to Congress in July by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog.

Centrist voices within the Democratic Party are sending a message more aligned with Biden’s. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York pledged “to do all I can to deliver everything Israel requires in this time of urgent need.”

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., wrote on social media: “Radical Iranian-backed Hamas terrorists have brutally murdered and kidnapped Israeli children, women, men, and grandparents, including Americans. We must continue our work to provide Israel with the resources she needs to defend herself from terror.”

Across the aisle, Republicans accuse Biden of not doing enough to bolster Israel’s security — even if they are mired in an intraparty fight that has paralyzed the House and left members unable to quickly provide aid. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who was recently ousted as House speaker, suggested at a news conference Monday morning that the Biden administration has coddled Iran, which has historically funded Hamas.

Republicans joined calls for Israel to devastate the part of Gaza where the attacks originated. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Republican presidential candidate, wrote Monday on social media: “They are blood-thirsty murderers who chant ‘death to Israel,’ death to America.’ Finish them.”

Whether Biden’s unflinching resolve lasts may hinge on the war’s civilian toll. Reeling from the worst attack on its soil in a half-century, Israel has ordered a siege of Gaza and cut off electricity and food to a coastal enclave that is home to 2 million people.

“I think the gloves are off,” Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., said Monday on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” “We will wage war until we destroy the war machine. And they should be clear about it.”

Images of civilian bombing victims in Gaza may trigger demands from the left wing of the Democratic Party that Biden use his influence in Jerusalem to moderate the attacks. That sort of backlash has happened before. As Israel bombed Gaza in 2014 in response to Hamas rocket attacks, President Barack Obama called on both sides of the conflict “to act with reasonableness and restraint.”

The earlier skirmish is nothing like the attack Israel suffered over the weekend. With more than 900 dead in Israel and others taken hostage, an Israeli military spokesman said the stunning, coordinated assault from Hamas was “our 9/11.”

As with 9/11, many countries are rallying to Israel’s side and urging it to wipe out the perpetrators. The Star of David was projected onto No. 10 Downing St. in London, home of the U.K. prime minister. At home, the White House was lit up at dusk Monday in blue and white — the colors of the Israeli flag.

“The president has been particularly clear that Israel has every right to defend itself from what is the worst terrorist attack, probably, in the history of the state of Israel,” Tom Nides, the Biden administration’s former ambassador to Israel, said in an interview. “It would be the equivalent of 40,000 or 50,000 Americans dying.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization that has one objective, which is to destroy the state of Israel,” he continued. “And given that they have taken more than 100 hostages, including some Americans, Israel has every right to do what they need to do to get those bodies back.”

Even the most disciplined of armies would be hard-pressed to avoid civilian casualties, given the battlefield. The Gaza Strip is densely populated, and Israeli forces are expected to open a ground offensive in which more residential buildings could become targets.

“I know how Israel approaches these issues,” David Friedman, who was the U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Trump administration, said in an interview. “They have every incentive not to kill civilians. They don’t want to kill civilians. But Hamas is without any morals, and they’ll deploy and hide within civilian populations.”

One thing is certain: The flare-up in the Middle East is another in a series of foreign policy crises that have been piling up on Biden’s watch, testing his foreign policy bona fides ahead of the 2024 election. In Europe, Ukraine is locked in a prolonged war with Russia; in Asia, China’s aggressive military moves have stoked fears that it might invade Taiwan.

Trying to capitalize on the moment, former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, argues that the Hamas attack wouldn’t have happened on his watch. He has made the same argument about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Neither contention can be proved or disproved. But Trump’s critics worry that the claim will make an impression on voters, nonetheless.

“This is an evidence-free claim,” said John Bolton, the national security adviser in the Trump administration and one of Trump’s most vocal critics. “But I’m worried for myself — and Biden’s people have got to be very worried — that a lot of voters will look at it that way.”