Joe Biden Has the Political Space to Push for a Cease-Fire in Gaza. He Just Doesn’t Want To.

Joe Biden’s steadfast support for Israel puts him in more political peril than calling for a cease-fire would. Either he doesn’t realize there’s a new political reality or he simply doesn’t care.

US president Joe Biden arrives at the White House on December 19, 2023. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

There’s an argument to be made that president Joe Biden’s steadfast backing of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza — which so far has killed 20,000 Palestinians and is set to turn the enclave into a hub of starvation and disease — are unavoidably driven by the stifling political realities that exist in the United States when it comes to Israel.

That argument is becoming harder and harder to make.

Earlier this week, a coalition of six national security Democrats authored a letter to Biden sounding the kinds of warnings that longtime left-wing critics of both Israel’s current war and its treatment of the Palestinians have issued, urging the president to “use all our leverage to achieve an immediate and significant shift of military strategy and tactics in Gaza.”

“The mounting civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis are unacceptable and not in line with American interests,” they wrote. “We also believe it jeopardizes efforts to destroy the terrorist organization Hamas and secure the release of all hostages. . . . [Y]ou can’t destroy a terror ideology with military force alone. And it can, in fact, make it worse.”

What’s significant about this is that nearly all the Democrats making these points are not only centrists specifically recruited to flip Republican-leaning districts, but each has a background in the military or intelligence. Of the five that were recruited in 2018’s “Red to Blue” program, three — Reps. Jason Crow (D-CO), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), and Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) — served in the US military in different capacities, while two — Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) — worked for the CIA. The sixth, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), is a former Marine who served four tours of duty in Iraq and was considered a top centrist recruit in the 2014 elections.

Declining Support for Israel

This is only one sign that the supposed domestic political constraints forcing Biden to continue supplying and giving political cover for Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians are not nearly as rigid as we might expect.

There has been a spate of polls since roughly late October, as antiwar protests around the world and country gained momentum and news of the horror out of Gaza intensified, showing that Biden’s support for Israel’s campaign hasn’t rebounded his approval numbers as his team had expected — and in fact, has only eroded them. Since then, more polling has borne this out, including a Gallup survey conducted in November and CBS News/YouGov poll carried out in December. That second poll found approval for Biden’s handling of the war had dropped among Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike since October, and that a larger share of Americans (34 percent) thought Biden was making a peaceful resolution of the conflict less likely than more so (24 percent).

Perhaps the most high profile of these polls was the recent New York Times/Siennna College survey, carried out in mid-December. Though framed by the paper as suggesting that Biden has “few politically palatable options” on the war, a closer look at the numbers suggests otherwise: a 44 percent plurality of Americans think Israel should stop the war, compared to the 39 percent who think it should continue, and 48 percent believe Israel isn’t doing enough to avoid civilian casualties, compared to only 30 percent who believe it is. Far from deftly navigating a political tightrope, it would seem that Biden is fully leaning into the more unpopular position among the US electorate.

I’m not the only one suggesting as much. Pointing to the Times/Sienna poll — particularly its evidence of the war’s role in triggering a major erosion of support for Biden among young people, a key electoral demographic — as well as other surveys, several mainstream outlets have warned that Biden’s backing of the war is the real political liability for him.

“It’s Becoming Clear. Israel Could Cost Joe Biden Re-Election,” cautions Newsweek. “Biden cannot afford to discount the dissatisfaction an increasing number of voters hold toward his Israel policies,” warned a column in Haaretz, the Israeli paper of record. “One poll is just one poll,” stated a different Haaretz column. “But when a plethora of polls consistently show diminishing support for Israel and solid disapproval of U.S. President Joe Biden’s handling of the Gaza war, it is time not only to analyze them individually but to try and infer accurate insights.”

These numbers should be taken alongside the numerous surveys that show record majorities or large pluralities of Americans supporting a cease-fire. These include a November Reuters/Ipsos poll (68 percent), a November Morning Consult poll (53 percent), a Lake Research Partners poll of pro-Israel Rep. Greg Casar’s (D-TX) district from early that same month (73 percent), a Yahoo News/YouGov poll carried out a few days after that (41 percent), a Data for Progress poll from late November (61 percent), and a December AP-NORC poll (48 percent).

But maybe most interesting is a recent Data for Progress/We the People-Michigan survey of the Detroit area, given that Michigan is a key state that the president narrowly won in 2020, and where multiple polls now show him losing to Donald Trump, sometimes by wide margins. The Detroit survey has 67 percent of likely voters backing a cease-fire, and finds Biden’s approval rating across the board shooting up if he hypothetically backed one.

Yet Biden and his officials have been consistently against a cease-fire, and just worked to water down a United Nations resolution calling for one, in an embarrassing episode that’s drawn global headlines.

In other words, whatever the personal perception inside the White House, polling and other signs suggest the president has, to put it mildly, a significant amount of wiggle room to push for a cease-fire or otherwise restrain Israel — and would even potentially benefit from the move.

Previous presidents have done so in times far less friendly to criticism of Israel, and when Israeli actions were leaving a similar trail of death and destruction. Many have pointed to Ronald Reagan’s response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege and bombing of its capital, Beirut, when he stopped sending cluster munitions to Israel out of concerns for civilians and made Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin end his bombing of Lebanon with a single phone call.

Like Biden, Reagan was considered a staunchly pro-Israel president who shocked even some of his own advisors with his unwillingness to publicly criticize the war. This was even though, when the war started, a CBS poll found that a plurality of 38 percent thought Israel was wrong to invade Lebanon (versus 34 percent who said it was right), and 24 percent backed reducing aid to Israel, as well as 7 percent who thought Reagan should criticize it. (20 percent at the time believed the United States should back Israel.)

What changed the calculus for Reagan was, reportedly, not just his own personal revulsion at what he was watching the Israeli military do, but the political blowback he was facing. By August, 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the invasion and negative feelings about Reagan’s foreign policy ticked up sharply, leading the then president to take a firmer public line, in the hopes of combating perceptions of his “impotence” over the issue, before finally phoning Begin and telling him he was carrying out a “holocaust.”

A Pro-Israel Hawk

It’s worth noting that during this time, as first reported in English by Jacobin’s Ben Burgis, then-senator Joe Biden — who one campaign volunteer charged had made a calculated decision in his first Senate run to take a firmly pro-Israel position that didn’t match his personal views — took a very different line with Begin than Reagan had.

“You annihilated what you annihilated,” the Israeli prime minister later recounted Biden telling him. “It was great! It had to be done! If attacks were launched from Canada into the United States, everyone here would have said, ‘Attack all the cities of Canada, and we don’t care if all the civilians get killed.’”

This was not a one-time thing. As Peter Beinart documented some years back, even as vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was exceptionally indulgent of Israeli policies and current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and worked to undercut Obama’s attempts to apply pressure on Netanyahu. Biden’s reasoning, reportedly, was that you should “never crucify yourself on a small cross”: or, in other words, that “the Palestinians were never going to give us what we needed and Israelis would make us pay politically so there was no reason to take a hard line with them.”

Rather than a carefully calibrated position attuned to the politics of the moment, in other words, there is strong evidence the president’s handling of the current Israel-Gaza conflict is a product of his own, very specific views of Israel and the level of public tolerance for US criticism of it — views that have long been outliers even in the still very pro-Israel political landscape of the United States, and are arguably more outdated today than ever. As a result, he’s not just facilitating an appalling mass murder that has sent US global standing to new lows. He may be digging his own political grave.