Gaza is Biden's other defining foreign policy issue

Besides the war in Ukraine, Gaza has been a defining foreign policy challenge for the Biden administration and larger US interests in the Middle East

Sebastien Thibault

Gaza is Biden's other defining foreign policy issue

The unfolding escalation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has introduced a new element into US domestic politics, with particular impact upon upcoming 2024 presidential elections.

The advent of Hamas’ October 7th attack was met with initial public solidarity with Israel in the days that followed—only to become fractured after Israel has doubled down on its campaign in Gaza that has imposed an estimated 11,078 death toll amongst Gaza residents—40% reported to be children—raising questions about the offensive’s humanitarian effects on Palestinian civilians.

While the Republican Party has maintained a general consensus over full-fledged backing of Israel and its offensive against Hamas, the Democratic Party has demonstrated notable fractures over the extent—if at all—to which the US should support Israel’s campaign.

This fractured position has challenged the Biden administration and his candidacy in the 2024 presidential race, forcing Biden and his campaign to adopt a careful balance between support for Israel and Palestinian civilians, amidst changing public attitudes and an increasingly critical Democratic Party.

Read more: How Israel misread Hamas

Republican Consensus

The Republican Party demonstrated widespread solidarity with Israel in the days that followed the October 7th attacks. According to the University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll with Ipsos, 71.9% of Republicans assert they support Israel—nearly doubling since they were last polled in June of this year when just 47.3% said they supported Israel.

Republicans sitting on the oversight panel in the House of Representatives’ Oversight Committee—in which there is a Republican majority—signed a letter to USAID administrator Samantha Power indicating their intent to investigate USAID humanitarian aid into Gaza and the West Bank to ensure no taxpayer dollars have been diverted to Hamas. The Republican-majority House approved a military aid package of $14.5 billion—an initiative that was largely partisan and alienated pro-Israel Democrats and the Biden administration due to IRS funding cuts.

While the bill was a test for the new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, the bill was vetoed by the Biden administration for lack of humanitarian provisions for Palestinians and breakage from bipartisan norms for emergency national security aid, demonstrating a widening divide between Democrats and Republicans over foreign assistance.

The crisis in Gaza was prominently featured in the November 8 presidential debate for Republican candidates, with the majority of candidates jostling to be perceived as the biggest champion of Israel and hawk on Iran. The five candidates that took the debate floor, Governor Ron DeSantis, Governor Nikki Haley, Governor Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Senator Tim Scott, all asserted their full-fledged support of Israel and military campaign against Hamas.

Some candidates like Ron DeSantis and Tim Scott (who has just dropped out of the race) additionally incorporated the war into ongoing culture war narratives emerging within the US. DeSantis downplayed attacks against Muslim-Americans as examples of “so-called Islamophobia” and complaints that disregarded Israel’s right to defend itself.

Responding to campus debates and demonstrations throughout American universities, Scott threatened to deport students with visas espousing pro-Hamas and/or antiemetic beliefs. Other candidates like Nikki Haley asserted that the US did not need to place conditions around support to Israel, offering them “whatever they need”—a sentiment that was echoed by Governor Chris Christie who signaled to Israel’s Prime Minster Netanyahu, “America is here, no matter what it is you need.”

Christie has additionally announced an upcoming trip to Israel, where he will speak with officials and families of hostages—making him the first Republican candidate to visit the country in the wake of the October 7th attacks. There were clear messages from Republican candidates regarding their posture on Hamas and the extent of Israel’s ground and air offensive: Governor Haley encouraged Israel to “finish” Hamas; Ron DeSantis stated Israel needed to “finish the job once and for all with these butchers [Hamas]”; Senator Tim Scott who asserted that Hamas needed to be wiped “off the map.”

Ron DeSantis stated Israel needed to "finish the job once and for all with these butchers [Hamas]"; Senator Tim Scott who asserted that Hamas needed to be wiped "off the map."

However, it's possible that this consensus over support for Israel could very well be challenged over time, as the conflict drags on and isolationist factions of the Republican Party grow more critical of US engagement. One notable Republican candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, has broken from the party consensus on Israel early on, even before the October 7th attacks. 

Ramaswamy proposed that the US seek to reduce over 3.8 billion of financial and security assistance to Israel through effective regional normalization efforts, ultimately to dismantle Israeli dependence on US military and economic aid that has been promised through the end of 2028. 

The proposal sparked a debate with more traditionally conservative contestants like Nikki Haley over the premise of US backing of Israel. Ramaswamy additionally accused candidates that encouraged deportation and countering pro-Palestine activist groups on college campuses of censorship—a notable break with candidates.

Sebastien Thibault

With the war in Gaza having thrown a wrench into rapprochement efforts between Israel and its historical regional rivals like Saudi Arabia, Ramaswamy has slowly backed away from championing this proposal behind the presidential debate podium, attempting to convey a pro-Israel stance. But Ramaswamy's break from his Republican peers demonstrates a potential cleavage in Israel policy within the party.

Outside of the race, there have been some party members skeptical of aiding Ukraine, such as Senator Josh Hawley, that have framed US assistance to Israel and Ukraine as an either-or proposition, asserting that Israel's fight against Hamas deserves US urgency and redistribution of aid to Ukraine.

Additionally, it's possible that, like the war in Ukraine, intra-party consensus over support for Israel could fragment, with the cost of aid packages accumulating criticism amongst far-right party members of either the isolationist or constraint camp, that argue the US should not get distracted in another Middle East conflict and instead concentrate on competition in the Pacific theater or reforms at home.

Fractures amongst Democratic Party Members

Democrats joined Republican lawmakers in the initial weeks following the October 7 Hamas attack in condemning Hamas and expressing unanimous support for Israel. However, the mounting death toll, humanitarian costs, changing public attitudes and demonstrations, and reports of indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure have begun to fragment Democratic lawmakers' response.

Democrats have been divided into three, primary camps: one siding with Palestine, another siding with Israel, and the third seeking restraint and neutrality. The University of Maryland's Critical Issues Poll indicated that less Democrats and Independents sided in the neutral camp, with a drop from 73.4% to 57.4% for Democrats from June  and drop from 71.4% to 53.6% for Independents.

Sebastien Thibault

While initial polls indicated that more Democrats supported Israel since the October 7th attacks, from 13.7% in June to 30.9% in October, recent nationwide protests and outcries against the treatment of Palestinians have exposed a divide between far-left and moderate Democrats over this foreign policy issue.

The House Republicans' proposed emergency funding bill for Israel particularly exacerbated this divide amongst Democrats—particularly Jewish Democrats seeking to promote aid for Israel while also upholding the party line.

The fact that the bill did not include additional provisions for support for Ukraine, humanitarian assistance for Palestinians, and attempted to make cuts to IRS spending, ultimately generated a united front amongst Democrats in opposing the bill.

Read more: Israel's war on Gaza and Einstein's definition of madness

The top Democrat presiding over the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory Meeks, stated "My message to the caucus is: If you're pro-Israel, you're voting no," Meeks said. "Republicans are playing politics with this. We've never had a situation where any aid to Israel or our national security was conditioned, and here they're conditioning it as well as increasing the deficit."

However, some Democrats like Representative Jared Moskowitz of Florida, Representative Debbie Wasserman of Florida, and Representative Brad Schneider of Illinois criticized the initiative but demonstrated hesitation over opposing the bill, amidst racketing pressure from constituencies to show support and solidarity with Israel—no matter the political costs.

Democrats have been divided into three, primary camps: one siding with Palestine, another siding with Israel, and the third seeking restraint and neutrality.

There have been Democrats that have further parted from the party line over full-fledged support for Israel, seeking to alter the US policy on Israel-Palestine to further support Palestinians and a two-state solution.

Congressional representatives such as Rashida Tlaib of Michigan called for the lifting of Israel's blockade and dismantling the "apartheid system" a day after the October 7th attacks. Representative Cori Bush, too, issued a statement calling not only for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but an end to US support for Israeli "occupation and apartheid." The statements from Tlaib and Bush sparked controversy amongst both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, with representatives like Ritchie Torres stating that Tlaib and Bush glorified resistance and "US aid to Israel is and should be unconditional."

But this past week, Tlaib's support of Palestine further divided lawmakers, after she tweeted the nationalist slogan "from the river to the sea," resulting in an effort to censure and, amongst some Republican lawmakers like Representative Derrick Van Orden, expel her from Congress.

The statement incited criticism not only from Republicans, such as Representative Mike Lawler and Representative Jeff Van Drew, but also fellow peers in the Democratic Party—70 of which that signed a letter criticizing her use of the slogan.

Representative Tlaib took to the House floor to defend herself, tearing up while stating "Palestinians are not disposable" while calling for a ceasefire. The vote for Tlaib's censure resulted in 234 in favor and 188 against.

Gaza has been a defining foreign policy challenge for this administration and larger US interests in the Middle East.

Biden's Conundrum

Polls have indicated that Americans surveyed from both Republican and Democratic parties have criticized his approach to Gaza, but for different reasons.

Meanwhile, 26% of Republican respondents have claimed that the administration's approach has favored Palestinians too much, whereas 24.4% of Democratic respondents have criticized Biden for leaning too much in favor of Israel and its ongoing offensive in Gaza.

Those polled have additionally indicated that Gaza has been a defining foreign policy challenge for this administration and larger US interests in the Middle East—an issue that will be consequential and defining for Biden's 2024 candidacy.

While 52.8% noted that Gaza won't have an effect upon their vote, 30.9% reported they were less likely to vote for Biden because of his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, opposed to 14.2% that reported they were more likely.

While a majority of Republicans indicated they were less likely, there was still a cost for Biden amongst constituents of his own Democratic Party: 10.8% of Democrats reporting less likely to vote for Biden due to the administration's handling of Gaza.

The emerging divide amongst Democrats over the degree of support for Israel—if at all—juxtaposed with increasing solidarity for Israel places President Biden in a difficult position ahead of the 2024 presidential elections on an issue that will no doubt be featured as the prominent foreign policy challenge in the Middle East.

These shifting conditions will force Biden's administration and presidential campaign to strike a cautious balancing act between support for Israel's defensive capabilities and humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza, while seeking out pathways for deescalation that can demonstrate US proactive leadership in this crisis.

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