U.S. President Joe Biden’s military backing for Israel is coming under increasing pressure at home and abroad amid the humanitarian crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Officials from the United Nations to the State Department are decrying the number of Palestinian civilians being killed. Questions are mounting about whether the White House’s exhortations that Israel follow the laws of war are having any effect. And Mr. Biden’s support among key groups of Democratic voters is falling.
The President, long a supporter of Israel, is showing no sign of wavering, however, and polling suggests a majority of Americans is on-side with his policy.
Since Hamas’s massacres and abductions in Israel on Oct. 7, the Biden administration has dispatched ammunition and missiles to Israel, and asked Congress to approve a further US$14-billion military aid package.
Mr. Biden has pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow civilians to get out of harm’s way and pressed him to allow humanitarian aid through Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt. But he has not publicly made adherence to these requests a condition of receiving the military help from the U.S.
In recent days, the President and his advisors have repeatedly avoided saying whether they believe Israel is obeying international law. “We’re not going to react in near-real time to every event,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told a White House press briefing Tuesday.
The United Nations doubled down on its call for a ceasefire this week, with Secretary-General António Guterres describing Gaza as a “graveyard for children” and the site of “inhuman collective suffering.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week suggested Israel might be going too far in Gaza. In addition to Israel’s bombing campaign, Gazans have been subjected to a blockade of food, water and medicine since the war started. “We have to ask ourselves whether the cost of justice has to be that all Palestinian civilians suffer,” he said after meeting with Mr. Biden in Washington.
Closer to home, the administration is facing dissent from some of its own functionaries. In one memo circulated by mid-level employees at the State Department and leaked to Politico, officials urge the government to openly raise concerns with Israel’s handling of the war.
“We must publicly criticize Israel’s violations of international norms such as failure to limit offensive operations to legitimate military targets,” the memo says.
U.S. cities have also seen regular protests, including tens of thousands who descended on Washington Saturday to accuse the President of supporting a “genocide.”
The poet Rupi Kaur turned down an invitation to attend a White House Diwali event this week. “I decline any invitation from an institution that supports the collective punishment of a trapped civilian population,” she said in a statement.
A poll of Muslim and Arab-American voters in Michigan commissioned by Detroit Action, a leftwing group, found only 16 per cent would vote for Mr. Biden if an election were held now. Given Michigan’s outsize importance in deciding the last two elections, it is a demographic he can ill afford to lose next year.
Most Americans, however, appear to be in line with Mr. Biden’s position: A YouGov poll found 55 per cent of respondents favour sending weapons to Israel. And anything less than complete support would open the President up to attack from the Republicans, who are staunchly behind Mr. Netanyahu.
“We need to back Israel all the way and we need to give Bibi and his coalition government all the cover and authority they need to destroy Hamas,” former House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan said in an interview, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. Mr. Biden should not “try to play armchair general” by telling Israel how to run the war.
On Capitol Hill Tuesday, family members of some of Hamas’s hostages warned the U.S. not to waver. Yonatan Lulu-Shamariz said groups such as Hamas would come for the U.S. next if not stopped. “This is a wake-up call for all of you – all of you here, all of America, all of Europe. You are next,” he said.
Beyond politics, Mr. Biden has evinced a deep personal conviction in supporting Israel: he frequently recounts meeting then-prime minister Golda Meir during his first year as a senator, in 1973, and becoming deeply worried for the country’s security.
He also seems to have calculated that a strong public embrace of Israel will give him more room to shape the direction of the war. Whether Mr. Netanyahu has so far allowed that is unclear.
Jesse Marks of Refugees International said Israel has violated international law, including by cutting off basic necessities to civilians in Gaza, but the White House has been selective in how it has publicly pushed them to change their conduct.
“The Biden administration has taken a more forward-leaning role on allowing in aid, but not as forward-leaning on pressuring Israel to adhere to international law – the protection of civilians and loosening or reversing the ongoing siege,” said Mr. Marks, a former policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Defence.
The U.S. has managed to get the Rafah crossing opened, allowing trucks of humanitarian aid inspected by Israel to enter and foreign citizens to leave. The amount of aid remains small: 569 trucks in two-and-a-half weeks, compared with hundreds of trucks per day before the war.
Mr. Netanyahu this week said he would agree to “tactical little pauses” in the fighting in Gaza to allow aid in and hostages out. But he rejected talk of a ceasefire and suggested Israeli forces would remain long-term in Gaza. “Israel will for an indefinite period,” he told ABC News, “have the overall security responsibility.”