Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 22 February 2024


Joe Biden must stand firm on support for Israel


It’s not just in parliament that the impact of war in the Middle East is on vivid display. In the US — for a change — the domestic politics were less kinetic but no less significant for politicians trying to navigate the challenges of Gaza.

Two polls underscored the electoral problems the war is posing for President Biden. A Siena survey in New York indicated that the state’s Jewish voters prefer Donald Trump over Joe Biden in November’s presidential election by a margin of 9 percentage points. This is a potential earthquake. Jewish voters have long been reliable supporters of Biden’s party, further left on the liberal-progressive spectrum than the average voter, especially in solidly Democratic New York.

Yet the Hamas atrocity of October 7, with its reminder of the continuing existential threat Jews face, and the following pro-Palestinian (and frequently antisemitic) demonstrations across the US, backed by the left, alarmed many Jews and seem to have made them rethink their traditional loyalties.

The other poll was in Michigan. It showed Trump beating Biden by 4 percentage points in the state. Michigan is home to the second largest Arab-American population in the US and has been a locus of pro-Palestinian sentiment and strong opposition to the Biden administration’s support for Israel in its war against Hamas.

Rashida Tlaib, a member of the far-left congressional “Squad”, has been urging fellow Michigan Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s presidential primary next week instead of backing Biden, to pressure the White House to get Israel to declare a ceasefire. The same poll showed a majority of all voters in Michigan support an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East. Among Democrats, the level of support was 74 per cent.


Neither poll is definitive. The New York survey in particular was based on a very small subsample of Jewish voters and is subject to a wide margin for error, but the direction of Jewish opinion does seem clear and the juxtaposition of the two polls underscores the perilous politics.

Losing Jewish voters would not spell electoral disaster for Biden. Even though there are far more Jews than Arab-Americans in the US, their strength tends to be concentrated in states with huge Democratic majorities. New York has the largest Jewish population, at about 10 per cent of the total, followed by New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut and California. Every single Jewish person in every one of these states could vote for Trump, and Biden would still win them all by a landslide.

But in Michigan, a swing state that Biden won by 150,000 votes, or 3 percentage points, in 2020, there are a similar number of Arab-American voters. They have been heavily Democratic in the past and their desertion could deprive Biden of a critical brick in his fragile electoral wall. These calculations aren’t the only reason Biden is under pressure to soften his pro-Israel line but they aren’t negligible. The strength of pro-Palestinian support on the party’s left, among younger voters especially, is a problem. Other polls have suggested more than two thirds of Democrats under 35 disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war; more than three quarters of those aged 65 and older approve.

While the administration continues to back Israel publicly, it has tried to balance that posture, as civilian casualties in Gaza mount. This week, it vetoed a ceasefire resolution at the UN security council. But for the first time it put forward a resolution using “ceasefire” language, calling for one “as soon as practicable”.

The administration continues to urge Congress to pass military aid for Israel, but officials are telling reporters of Biden’s increasing frustration with Binyamin Netanyahu, and that he has been urging the Israeli prime minister not to go for an all-out assault on Rafah. And while the US still offers support, Biden has called Israel’s actions “over the top”, indicated support for an automatic recognition of a Palestinian state, and has attached conditions to new weapons shipments.

We have seen this stinted approach to a major strategic challenge before from the Biden team. Even as they have strongly backed Ukraine in its war against Russia, they have been extra cautious at every stage about provoking Vladimir Putin. In the wider Middle East, strong rhetoric against Iran has not been backed by resolute action. And with China, the administration’s largest strategic challenge, it has also shown uncertain resolution.

All this is reflected in the fact that foreign policy is one of Biden’s many weaknesses as he seeks re-election. He gets low marks from voters for his handling of international issues. A Monmouth poll last week indicated that voters disapprove of Biden’s foreign policy by a two-to-one margin.

Yet on the Middle East especially, it’s not clear that any modulation of a pro-Israel policy would be good politics. Overall, voters are still overwhelmingly pro-Israel. A Harvard Harris poll last month showed four out of five Americans support Israel’s war. Holding on to a few tens of thousands of votes in Michigan won’t redress heavy losses elsewhere.


This is the significant political reality. Most Americans understand what is at stake: Israel’s very existence is threatened by a genocidal terrorist organisation. Civilian casualties in Gaza are not simply a tragic consequence of the necessary task of destroying Hamas. They are principally the responsibility of Hamas itself, which murders Jews in cold blood and then hides amid its own civilian population to avoid retribution.

Events in parliament this week remind us of the importance of defending those under threat from terrorism. Biden should stay the course with Israel. Not just because it is in his electoral interests, but because it is in the interests of all who prize freedom.

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