Joe Biden has a Gaza problem. The president is facing a backlash from pro-Palestinian activists who have swarmed campaign stops and sometimes shouted him down at abortion rights rallies, auto worker union events and a pre-Grammys meeting with black entertainers. Cries of “Genocide Joe” mingle with demands for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, as well as threats that many progressives won’t vote for Biden in November. Some suggest they may even turn to Donald Trump instead.
This would be an obvious own goal. Trump is far more hostile to Muslims generally and Palestinians specifically than Biden, and is more inclined to give the Israeli government full support in its incursion on Gaza. It is tempting, then, to respond to the “I won’t vote for Biden” threats with: “Are you insane?”
It’s a response that might be satisfying on social media but it’s not a particularly effective way of appealing to devastated voters. And that is who these people are: shattered, angry voters distraught by images of bloodied children in Gaza, who see the number of dead Palestinians ticking up by the day and know that their tax dollars are funding this carnage.
If you believe, as I do, that any American president should do much more to ensure civilians are protected and bring a swift end to this war, it makes sense to press Biden to be tougher on Israel. It does not make sense to rally behind Trump, nor to argue that there is no meaningful difference between a Trump presidency and a Biden one. It was Trump who issued the notorious Muslim ban; relocated the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; appointed a settlement-supporting ambassador to Israel; pushed the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was a foreign-born secret Muslim; and claimed that “Islam hates us”. He has explicitly said that if he wins, the US will not accept refugees from Gaza. It’s impossible to imagine that Trump will show any sympathy for Palestinian suffering.
Those on Israel’s far right seem to agree. The national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who wants to push Palestinians out of Gaza and repopulate the Strip with Israeli settlers, complained to the Wall Street Journal that, “Instead of giving us his full backing, Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel [to Gaza], which goes to Hamas.” He added: “If Trump was in power, the US conduct would be completely different.” I don’t agree with Ben-Gvir on much, but here he is correct. A Trump presidency would mean more support for the Israeli extremists who seek total annihilation or expulsion of Palestinians and far less help for vulnerable civilians. There would also be little chance of the US facilitating a peaceful solution.
Those who want Biden to win need to persuade our potential allies, not condescend to them. Those who are enraged on behalf of Palestinians need to both feel and actually be heard by the president. They may not get everything they want, and they also may find themselves in deep disagreements with more mainstream Democrats – many of whom rightly put a high premium on ending Hamas terrorism, protecting Israel’s security and defending the Jewish state’s right to exist. Normie Democrats like me who want two states for two peoples will always clash with those who want a single state. But even so, increasing support for suffering Gazans while taking a far harder approach with the arrogant and corrupt Benjamin Netanyahu should be a no-brainer for Biden.
Biden has, by many accounts, pressed Netanyahu to better shield civilians and consider a post-war Palestinian state. He has also sanctioned settlers who allegedly attacked Palestinians in the West Bank. But to many voters, especially young ones, this is insufficient. A December New York Times/Siena poll found that 72 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds disapproved of Biden’s handling of the conflict. Stunningly, nearly half of the same age group said they trusted Trump over Biden on Israel/Palestine. Trump is polling shockingly well among young voters, long a solid Democratic voting bloc. And their views are becoming increasingly mainstream. Other polls suggest that Biden’s approval among Arab Americans has tanked.
Overall, Muslim voters are a tiny constituency, but they may have played a significant role in Biden’s 2020 victories in Pennsylvania and Georgia and remain an important bloc in Michigan, which swung for Trump in 2016 and then Biden in 2020. Young voters, too, could make a Biden victory in swing states. General elections are always about some combination of turnout and persuasion, and if Biden is losing voters on both counts he could be in trouble.
Much will surely happen between now and November – including, I hope, an end to the horrific war in Gaza. Once Trump is confirmed as the Republican nominee, those threatening to vote against Biden may face some ugly reminders of who could replace him in the White House.
But how people feel now could very well matter in nine months. And so, it’s key to listen to all potential voters, including the many Democrats who are staunch supporters of Israel, and the growing number who are profoundly troubled by what is happening in Gaza. Those who would abandon Biden are hurting innocent Palestinians far more than helping. But the Democrats who would shame them rather than engaging in the tougher work of listening and persuading are also unwittingly doing Trump’s work for him.
[See also: The fractured reality of Israel’s war in Gaza]
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?