Biden bucks fellow Democrats’ growing calls to pressure Israel

The president has resisted efforts in his party to take a more forceful stand with Israel

GAZA CITY, GAZA - May 13: Men walk on the rubble of a residential building in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, that was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, on May 13, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza. More than 65 people in Gaza and seven people in Israel have been killed in continued cross-boarder rocket exchanges as violence continues to escalate bringing fears of war. The escalation which erupted on Monday comes after weeks of rising Israeli-Palestinian tension in East Jerusalem, which peaked with violent clashes inside the holy site of Al-Aqsa Mosque. (Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images)

After days of ignoring mounting tension in Jerusalem despite weeks of warnings from two Arab governments, US President Joe Biden finally acknowledged the issue on Wednesday – but only after the crisis had led to a barrage of Hamas rocket attacks and deadly Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip.

Mr Biden’s first public comments on the crisis largely stuck to the traditional pro-Israel talking points, emphasising Israel's right to self-defence without addressing the forced displacement of Palestinians in occupied territory such as Sheikh Jarrah.

He stressed the need to avoid civilian casualties in a phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but his reluctance to emphasise Palestinian rights and exert pressure on Israel as he belatedly tries to manage the crisis stands in contrast to much of the Democratic Party – from pro-Palestinian progressives to pro-Israel centrists – including advocacy groups that worked to get him elected in the first place.

"We're seeing now growing condemnation and criticism from Democrats and from the progressive wing of the party calling for reassessment of US military financing to Israel," Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian American political analyst, told The National.

“It may not be what the administration wants to hear. It may not be convenient for them politically.”

Criticism "is only growing, especially as the situation on the ground continues to worsen, especially as US-financed machinery is raining death down on Palestinians from the sky," he added.

For the first time, a majority of Democratic voters – 53 per cent – want Washington to exert more pressure on Israel than the Palestinians to resolve the conflict, according to a Gallup poll released in March, a significant increase from 2018, when only 43 per cent of Democratic voters wanted Washington to put more pressure on Israel under the Donald Trump administration.

Even Senate Democrats with ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which staunchly defends the Israeli position, went further in a statement on Wednesday than the president.

Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Ben Cardin of Maryland – two senators staunchly favoured by AIPAC – joined Ron Wyden of Oregon in the statement that included the routine condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks.

But notably, they went further than Mr Biden did, stating “the Israeli police must take steps to lower tensions throughout Jerusalem” and applauding the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision to delay the hearing that could potentially force Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan and allow Israeli settlers to replace them.

Even as some of the most staunchly pro-Israel Democrats take a stronger stand on Palestinian rights than the Biden administration has so far, many centre-left and progressive members of the party have gone even further.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, an AIPAC rival and liberal lobby group that raised more than $2 million for Mr Biden’s 2020 election campaign, said he was calling on the Biden administration to step in more forcefully.

“There’s a balance to a very large number of the [congressional] statements that you’re seeing, where they’re saying the rockets are horrible – you have to condemn the use of that kind of tactic against civilians – and it’s really important that Israel be called out on some of its activities that it has undertaken in Jerusalem in recent weeks. That’s the match that's lit the fire," he said.

J Street, which spent $190,000 lobbying the Biden administration and Congress between January and March this year, has backed legislation on Capitol Hill that would enact conditions on the $3.8 billion in annual military aid the US provides to Israel – a position that would have once constituted political suicide in Washington.

The legislation, introduced by Betty McCollum of Minnesota, would bar Israel from using US military aid to forcibly displace Palestinians, annex Palestinian territory or detain Palestinian minors.

While Democratic leaders did not advance narrower versions of the bill that Ms McCollum introduced in previous sessions, the Minnesota congresswoman now chairs the defence spending panel in the House of Representatives.

And Barbara Lee of California, the new chairwoman of the House’s foreign aid spending panel, condemned “unjust attempts to forcibly displace Palestinian families from their homes.”

But Mr Biden came out in staunch opposition to restrictions on military aid to Israel during his presidential campaign.

“US military financing to Israel is a long-standing, deep and extensive policy that has built up for decades” Mr Munayyer said.

“Joe Biden has been very clear in his record of support for Israel. He’s very much the prototypical old generation AIPAC Democrat, and I think that’s shaped a lot of who he is as a political being in the United States.”

Mr Ben-Ami also expressed frustration with the Biden administration’s failure to reverse several of former president Donald Trump’s policies that he views as destructive.

“The steps include reopening the consulate in Jerusalem that deals with the Palestinians, reopening the PLO mission in Washington, DC, reiterating that settlements are illegal under international law, reversing rules that allow US funds to be spent on settlements, reversing the idea that settlement goods are somehow made in Israel,” Mr Ben-Ami said.

“All of these are indicators of America giving a green light to occupation and to settlements and to the unsustainable nature of the conflict that leads to these rounds of violence.”

The Biden administration aside, many Washington policymakers have become increasingly comfortable striking a more critical tone on Israel.

Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – one of the most pro-Palestinian members of Congress – went so far as to state that unconditional US support for Israel emboldens apartheid policies earlier this week during remarks at the Middle East Institute.

Her use of the word apartheid to describe Israel's occupation of the West Bank – mere weeks after Human Rights Watch issued a report drawing similar conclusions – broke another long-standing taboo in Washington.

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