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Biden is being tested by politics in Israel and at home with the Gaza conflict

President Biden leaves a White House event on Jan. 19, 2024.
Brendan Smialowski
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden leaves a White House event on Jan. 19, 2024.

President Biden has long held a deep connection to the state of Israel — both personal and political. But the politics in the region under the current Israeli government — and politics at home in the base of his own Democratic party — are putting his long-held views to the test.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected calls for a Palestinian state, including during remarksthis week – even as Biden and his administration push for a regional economic integration deal that would include a pathway toward a two-state solution.

Meanwhile, Biden's unwavering support for Israel is running up against a generation of young voters. They are more skeptical of the Israeli government and more sympathetic to Palestinians than older Democratic voters. And that means Biden has to navigate both Netanyahu and the fractures in his own party as he seeks reelection.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs President Biden as he arrives in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs President Biden as he arrives in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023.

Biden's connection to Israel runs deep

Biden's lifelong bond with Israel was first kindled by his dad over dinner table conversations about the Holocaust, as the president often recounts.

On his first diplomatic trip to Israel in 1973, as a newly-elected senator from Delaware, Biden met then-prime minister Golda Meir — a meeting he still talks about as leaving a strong impression.

He has returned to Israel many times. Former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross remembers being at the King David hotel in Jerusalem in 2002, during the Second Intifada. The normally bustling hotel was deserted because of frequent suicide bombings.

"I came down for breakfast and the room was completely empty, except for one table, it has two people and the two people are Joe Biden and Tony Blinken," said Ross.

He asked Biden why he was there in the midst of this ongoing violence. "Biden said, 'This is precisely the time when I need to be,'" Ross recalled. "It stayed with me because it's such a reflection of his attitudes toward Israel."

It was a message: Israel would not be isolated. It would not be alone. It would always have the United States as a friend.

And that is a message Biden carries to this day.

"No other American president has the kind of experience and decades-long interaction with the people of Israel, the idea of Israel and the state of Israel," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department diplomat who advised previous presidents on Middle East policy.

President Biden leaves the room after giving remarks at the end of a visit to Tel Aviv on Oct. 18.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden leaves the room after giving remarks at the end of a visit to Tel Aviv on Oct. 18.

Biden's commitment to Israel has not changed. But the world around him has

Biden was steadfast in his support for Israel after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, which left some 1,200 Israelis dead. Another 240 people were taken hostage.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas leaders. But Palestinian civilian casualties have soared. More than 24,000 people have been killed, Gaza's health ministry said this week.

Calls for a ceasefire have grown louder – including from some Democrats. But Biden has continued to support Israel's military offensive.

"People have asked me repeatedly: he's going to change at some point, right? He's going to pick up the phone, he's going to call Netanyahu and he's going to say, 'Enough. Enough already,'" said Miller. "My response is, 'I don't think that moment is going to happen.' This has been an emotional gut issue for him from the beginning."

Polls show Democrats are divided on the conflict

Biden allies point out the president's support for Israel has largely reflected the will of the majority of the American public. Most Americans back Israel in the conflict, pollshave shown.

"This is an issue where he feels the politics and his own gut are in the same place," said Jonah Blank, a former foreign policy adviser to Biden for nearly a decade in the Senate.

Polls also show Democrats are split. If Biden showed more support for Palestinians, he could open himself up to more criticism ahead of the election.

"I think the president would be vulnerable politically to some conservative Democrats and certainly to the Republicans if in fact he allowed them to paint him as someone who was not sympathetic enough to what the Israelis have suffered," he said.

Protesters supporting Palestinians are regular features at President Biden's trips around the country, including a visit to Philadelphia on Dec. 11, 2023.
Ryan Collerd / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Protesters supporting Palestinians are regular features at President Biden's trips around the country, including a visit to Philadelphia on Dec. 11, 2023.

Some Democrats on the left want Biden to do more to show sympathy for Palestinians who are suffering. They see Biden hugging Netanyahu and rarely criticizing him in public for the mass civilian casualties.

But it's not Biden's style to call out people publicly who he is negotiating with privately, said his former adviser Blank. "Joe Biden believes that public criticism is counterproductive and kind of humiliating," he said.

Earlier this month, Tariq Habash, a Biden appointee in the Department of Education, resigned. The 33-year-old Palestinian American from Ohio says he could no longer work in an administration where he felt his own humanity was undervalued.

Habash said he knew Biden was a strong supporter of Israel, but said he's still disappointed that the president hasn't budged. He said he is particularly frustrated because he feels like Biden has shown a willingness to evolve on policy in the past - whether it was the invasion of Iraq or abortion.

"He has changed those perspectives," said Habash. "He has admitted - unlike a lot of other politicians - that you can be wrong, and learn from the past, learn from your mistakes."

Will Biden pay a political price in 2024?

On the campaign trail, Biden has faced protesters criticizing him for his support of Israel – including during a high-profile speech earlier this month.

He was asked this week whether he's concerned with losing votes over the issue. He deflected, alluding to his likely opponent, former President Donald Trump, who put in place travel restrictions for certain Muslim-majority countries.

After speaking to Netanyahu on Friday – a conversation that included some discussion of post-war governance for Gaza – Biden expressed optimism that Netanyahu could eventually accept a two-state solution "given the right one."
The assumption from the White House and Biden allies is that the conflict will be in a very different place by the time people actually start voting.

"I think what matters is what happens next," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., co-chair of Biden's reelection campaign and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"I fully expect that there will be a change. There will be increased humanitarian aid into Gaza, there will be a dramatic change in the tempo of [Israel's] fight against Hamas in Gaza," he said.

Coons expressed optimism about "regional reconciliation" – the efforts to forge peace by normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

"If that's not possible, if that doesn't happen over the next couple of months, I do think that there's segments of the Democratic base that will be more and more concerned and disenchanted," Coons warned.

But for now, any regional deal is contingent on moving toward a state for Palestinians — something that the Israeli prime minister has so far said he is set against, which could leave Biden in a difficult position.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.