Joe Biden’s Israel Headache is Getting Worse and Worse

Joe Biden is attempting a careful balancing act when it comes to America’s policy on the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, as he fends off criticism from the left while trying to retain strong ties with a long-term ally in the Middle East.

After being heckled by an activist urging him to call a ceasefire on Wednesday, the president responded that he supported a humanitarian “pause,” but that the current conflict was an “incredibly complicated” situation.

Some have seen this as an attempt by Biden to temper his public support for Israel, which in the immediate aftermath of the attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants on October 7 was staunchly sympathetic toward it.

But in the wake of an intensive campaign of airstrikes on Gaza and a subsequent ground offensive which has led to a rising Palestinian death toll, as well as numerous pro-Palestinian demonstrations across the U.S., the president—who is seeking a second term in 2024—is facing mounting outrage from progressive Democrats that he is not doing more to rein Israel in.

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden seen in the East Room of the White House in Washington D.C. on November 3, 2023. He is facing a difficult balancing act.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

“Biden is feeling increased pressure from his party to temper support for Israel,” Max Abrahms, a political science professor at Northeastern University, who specializes in international security, wrote on Thursday. “He’s now calling for a pause in the war which would help Hamas at a time of soaring antisemitism on the political left.”

Newsweek approached the White House via email for comment on Friday.

In the first two weeks following the attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Biden has said “Israel has a right to defend itself—full stop,” that his administration’s support for Israel “is rock solid and unwavering,” and that Israel “has a right and a duty to respond to these vicious attacks.”

Since then, progressive Democrat representatives such as Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, have called on Biden to de-escalate the crisis and call for a ceasefire.

Leading Democratic figures have faced criticism from younger progressives on their pro-Israel stance in the face of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, while younger Democrats—whose votes Biden is courting—tend to predominantly have greater sympathy for Palestine now than they do for Israel, polling suggests.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas develops, the Biden administration has been helping orchestrate the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, while the president’s rhetoric appears to have softened.

“The loss of every innocent life is a tragedy,” Biden said on Wednesday. “We grieve for those deaths and continue to grieve for the Israeli children and mothers who [were] brutally slaughtered by Hamas terrorists—and also continue to hold in our hearts the hundreds of families of loved ones, including small children and elderly grandparents, including American citizens, being held hostage.”

After being heckled, he said: “I can thoroughly understand the emotions, both on the Palestinian side of this argument and on the Jewish side of the argument.”

But if Biden softens his pro-Israel stance too much, he not only risks disharmony in the international alliance, but also losing some pro-Israel and Jewish voters—and giving Republicans, who have traditionally been staunchly pro-Israel, a stick to beat him with.

Israel palestine protest split
Left, counter-protesters supporting Israel at City University of New York (CUNY) on November 2, 2023; and a man waves a Palestinian flag during a march through downtown Los Angeles on October 28, 2023.
Spencer Platt/DAVID SWANSON/Getty Images/AFP

“Biden is likely aware that he’ll never please everyone with an issue as complex and controversial as Israel-Palestine, including within his own party,” Julie Norman, professor of politics and international relations at University College London, told Newsweek. “The slight shift in stance is still in line with most traditional Democrats who support Israel, though it will likely invite pushback from the GOP.”

When previous attacks on Israel have occurred, America has been able to pressure Israel into less aggressive retaliation. This time, having suffered the worst loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust, the Israeli government has vowed to eliminate Hamas and refused to commit to a ceasefire.

Commentators have suggested that any pause in its offensive would give the well-entrenched militants time to regroup.

As Gaza is densely populated, and Hamas is thought to place militant bases within civilian populations, such an operation is likely to incur a high civilian death toll—something that is deeply unpalatable for those who see Palestinians as the victims of historic injustices.

“My sense is that Biden’s shift on a humanitarian pause is less about progressive pressure, and more from the realities on the ground in Gaza,” Norman said.

She added: “The administration was facing pressure to get American citizens out of Gaza; they needed to demonstrate that the U.S. differentiates between Hamas and Palestinian civilians to avoid regional backlash; and they recognized that unprecedented civilian casualties and suffering could also backfire on Israel.”

Regardless of his intentions, the frenetic situation domestically leaves Biden in an impossible position, wherein completely appeasing one group of people in the debate risks alienating others—and attempting to maintain the centerground invites potential ire from all sides.