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Biden walks a fine line between support for Israel and empathy for Palestinians

President Biden is seen through the window of the Oval Office of the White House during his address to the nation on Thursday night.
Brendan Smialowski
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden is seen through the window of the Oval Office of the White House during his address to the nation on Thursday night.

Updated October 20, 2023 at 12:04 AM ET

President Biden is fully wrapping his arms around Israel.

Literally.

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President Biden got off Air Force One during his high-stakes trip to the Middle East Wednesday and greeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a big hug.

President Biden hugs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday.
Evan Vucci / AP
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AP
President Biden hugs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday.

The message was clear — the United States stands with Israel. Biden took that message to the American people Thursday night in an Oval Office address, but also tried to balance that with empathy for Palestinians.

"In Israel, I saw people who are strong, determined, resilient and also angry, in shock and in deep, deep pain," Biden said. But he noted that Palestinians also have the "right to dignity and to self-determination."

He added, "The actions of Hamas terrorists don't take that right away. ... We mourn every innocent life lost. We can't ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians who only want to live in peace and have an opportunity."

Biden also sought to appeal to Americans' better angels here at home, especially in the wake of the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois.

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"We must, without equivocation, denounce anti-Semitism," Biden said. "We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia."

Biden's challenges at home

It's a fine line that Biden is trying to walkshowing support for Israel and wanting to maintain influence there, looking strong enough domestically for an audience that is questioning his age and facility, and keeping his reliable voting base intact and energized ahead of his reelection bid next year.

Biden was also, however, trying to refocus Americans on the war in Ukraine, which has been largely out of American news since the latest Mideast violence.

"I know these conflicts can seem far away," Biden said Thursday night. "It's natural to ask, why does this matter to America?"

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Biden went on to make the case for staying engaged on both fronts, arguing that "making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America's national security."

Biden is looking to procure significant funding for both conflicts. He needs to go through Congress, which holds the power of the purse, but that's made more difficult by the fact that the U.S. House is currently non funziona.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are mired in a mess of their own creation, having failed repeatedly over the last two weeks to pick a speaker after ousting Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the post. That leaves the country unable to respond to, well, pretty much anything in a strong and substantive way, including Biden's foreign-policy priorities.

And he doesn't have the political wind at his back. Biden is left in a difficult and politically risky position — and the risk crosses political lines. He's not benefiting in the polls from his strong, pro-Israeli stance despite Americans saying they want that. Republicans are looking to pounce on any misstep. And, the longer Israel's campaign on Gaza marches on and civilian deaths mount, the more pressure Biden will likely face from many in the world — and even in some quarters within his own party — to lean on Israel to pull back.

After the hospital explosion in Gaza Tuesday, for example, divides were being exposed on the left.

There's a shift in public support for Israel

Biden took a forceful, pro-Israeli position in its war with Hamas immediately after the group's killing spree in southern Israel Oct. 7, the deadliest single day for Jews since the Holocaust.

"In this moment, we must be crystal clear," Biden said after the attack. "We stand with Israel. We stand with Israel."

And he did so again during his trip to Israel Wednesday.

Invoking the Holocaust, Biden said, "The world watched then — it knew — and the world did nothing. We will not stand by and do nothing again — not today, not tomorrow, not ever."

In backing Israel, Biden is taking a familiar — and popular — stance. It's one long-held by political leaders in both parties, because Israel is the U.S.'s strongest ally in the Middle East.

But that long-held sentiment appears to be changing.

Ahead of his reelection bid next year, Biden has to balance his own world view — one that is in line with that deeply ingrained American, pro-Israeli position — and that of younger voters and voters of color, who don't share the same depth of support for Israel.

For the first time this year, Gallup found this year that Democrats' sympathies lie more with Palestinians than Israelis. And that is driven by young voters.

The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll reflects that. Despite two-thirds of respondents in the survey saying they want a public show of support for Israel, those younger than 45, were 30 points less likely to say they wanted that than respondents 45 or older. Non-whites were 20 points less likely than whites to say so as well.

That is something Biden's campaign is likely sensitive to, especially considering Biden has never been a favorite of the young, progressive left.

The hospital explosion amplified the divide

Cracks started showing in the aftermath of the Gaza hospital explosion. Before the United States weighed in, Democrats Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — joined a pro-Palestinian chorus blaming Israel.

"Israel just bombed the Baptist Hospital killing 500 Palestinians (doctors, children, patients) just like that," Tlaib tweeted.

She called for a ceasefire and in comments directed at Biden, labeled this "your war."

"Bombing a hospital is among the gravest of war crimes," Omar tweeted. "The IDF reportedly blowing up one of the few places the injured and wounded can seek medical treatment and shelter during a war is horrific."

After the U.S. intelligence assessment, Omar called for "an independent investigation to determine conclusively who is responsible for this war crime."

Israel blamed the terror group Islamic Jihad, saying it was an errant rocket fired from Gaza. During his stop in Israel, Biden concurred.

The National Security Council said, in part, "Our current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information, is that Israel is not responsible for the explosion."

A bipartisan statement from the Senate Intelligence Committee also said after reviewing available intelligence, it feels "confident that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists."

The U.S. did not release evidence beyond the statements.

But a lot of damage had already been done. People weren't waiting for confirmations, and protests erupted in countries like Jordan, where Biden was originally supposed to meet with Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian leaders.

That summit was canceled as a result of the hospital explosion and the hundreds who were killed there.

Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, didn't walk back her remarks.

"As an American, not just as a member of the United States Congress, I am ashamed," she said, per ABC News. "I am ashamed that they're saying, 'not yet. Maybe next week.' ... How many more have to die?"

She added, "To my president, to our president ... I want him to know, as a Palestinian American and somebody in Muslim faith, I'm not going to forget this. And I think a lot of people are not going to forget this."

Many Democrats, even fellow progressives, pushed back on their colleagues — and don't want any equivocation.

"It's truly disturbing that Members of Congress rushed to blame Israel for the hospital tragedy in Gaza," Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, for example, tweeted. "Who would take the word of a group that just massacred innocent Israeli civilians over our key ally?"

He added, "Now is not the time to talk about a ceasefire. ... Hamas does not want peace, they want to destroy Israel. We can talk about a ceasefire after Hamas is neutralized."

With foreign policy it's often a lot of risk, little reward

When anything happens in the world, especially something of this magnitude, the president is expected to respond, to take a position, to show leadership.

A president has to often balance his own world view with domestic politics. In this case, at least initially, both appeared to be in line with each other.

Two-thirds of respondents in the NPR poll — taken days after Hamas' attack and after Biden's initial remarks — said the United States should publicly support Israel.

President Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
Miriam Alster / AP
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AP
President Biden pauses during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the war between Israel and Hamas in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

And yet Biden didn't appear to get any benefit politically — 52% in the survey said they disapproved of his handling of the Israel-Hamas situation.

If that's a head-scratcher, consider that in the same poll, an equal number also disapproved of the job Biden is doing overall.

So, it's pretty clear that partisan armor is just incredibly difficult to pierce in this intense age of hyperpolarization.

Is it really possible, though, that the most volatile issue on the planet right now might have zero effect on electoral politics?

It's certainly possible, if not likely.

Partisanship is entrenched, and foreign policy often ranks very low on the list of priorities for voters — despite it being one of the areas a president has the most control over.

As is often the case with the politics of foreign policy, there is little upside and lots of risk.

Certainly, if Biden stumbles, freezes or can't clearly articulate his position, conservatives will pounce and Democrats will lose confidence.

But the reality is, Biden isn't likely consumed with the domestic politics of this. Before serving as president, he spent a good portion of his life — as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and vice president — intimately involved in the U.S.'s role in the world.

Many in this country have taken a turn inward after two decades of war and become weary of U.S. involvement in international conflicts. Biden acknowledged that Americans relate to the pain Israel is facing. Still, he had some potential lessons from the U.S. response to 9/11 Wednesday.

"I understand," Biden said Wednesday. "Many Americans understand. You can't look at what has happened here and not scream out for justice, but I caution this — while you feel that rage, don't be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States, and while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes."

It was quite the admission for a U.S. president. But it's also the kind of subtle warning Biden can only deliver if he maintains influence — and part of that is keeping Netanyahu in a close embrace.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.