Biden backs Israel but criticism rises in US
May 17, 2021 11:05 PM
As it has for decades, Israel has counted on the United States as a diplomatic shield in its latest crisis. But once unwavering US support is looking increasingly precarious as calls grow on the left to advance Palestinian rights.
With violence that has killed more than 200 people, mostly Palestinians, entering a second week, Israel has emerged as rarely before as a partisan issue in Washington with members of former president Donald Trump's Republican Party boasting of unstinting backing of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The line of President Joe Biden has been consistent with previous Democratic administrations -- no public daylight with Israel but diplomatic efforts aimed at restoring calm.
Biden's approach has won praise from Israel but few other places.
Even Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seen as a reliably pro-Israel Democratic voice, said Saturday he was "deeply troubled" by Israeli strikes on Gaza that killed civilians and destroyed media offices, calling for "a full accounting."
Senator Bernie Sanders, Biden's main challenger from the left for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, has called the devastation "unconscionable" and, in a threat once taboo in Washington, said Sunday that the United States should take a "hard look" at the nearly $4 billion in military aid it provides each year to Israel.
Israel has historically enjoyed support from the Democrats, owing in part to the party's status as the favored home for American Jews and Israel's socialist roots.
But Sanders and other US progressives have come to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the prism of broader movements for social justice, especially as Netanyahu clings to power through an alliance with the far-right.
In a New York Times opinion piece, Sanders wrote that Netanyahu has "cultivated an increasingly intolerant and authoritarian type of racist nationalism" and ended with the line: "Palestinian lives matter."
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the highest-profile progressive Democrats, urged action against Israeli "apartheid" -- a term that infuriates Israel but was recently backed by Human Rights Watch, which said it was government policy to maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.
"The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self-defense," Ocasio-Cortez said on the House floor Thursday.
"But do Palestinians have a right to survive? Do we believe that? And if so, we have a responsibility to that."
Biden at odds with party
Israel launched the offensive after Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, began firing rockets into the Jewish state in what it said was a response to Israeli moves in Jerusalem.
Logan Bayroff of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group, said there was a growing recognition that Israeli actions including moves to evict Palestinian families in east Jerusalem contributed to the crisis.
"You're seeing much more willingness across a wide spectrum of the Democratic Party to criticize not just Hamas rockets -- and Hamas is involved in this -- but also Israeli government policy," said Bayroff, the group's vice president of communications.
"That forms a pretty strong contrast with how the Biden administration unfortunately seems to be on a different page in a way that frankly has not been adequate to the severity of the crisis," he said.
The Biden administration has not explicitly called for a ceasefire and has so far blocked a statement at the UN Security Council three times in a week, saying it could be counterproductive.
Bayroff said the shift in opinion was also due to Netanyahu's "disrespect" for the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, with the Israeli leader openly rallying Republicans against a denuclearization accord with Iran.
Americans overwhelmingly still see Israel positively, according to a Gallup survey in February, but 34 percent called for more pressure on Israel to resolve the conflict, the highest since the question was asked in 2007.
In a Pew poll this year, more than half of American Jews gave negative marks to Netanyahu and nearly two-thirds voiced optimism about coexistence with a Palestinian state.
Hawkish support for Israel comes largely not from American Jews but from the Christian right, where some see Biblical justifications to promote the Jewish state.
One Republican, Senator Todd Young, has joined calls for a ceasefire but much of the party has either accused Biden of insufficent support of Israel or accused left-wing Democrats of siding with Hamas, designated by Washington as a terrorist group.
"There is no moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas," said House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, pledging, "The United States unequivocally stands with our ally Israel and the Jewish people."