Biden’s shift on Israel fails to appease Democrats, draws fire from Republicans

US president’s allies say threat to condition military aid not sufficient, as GOP senator accuses him of strengthening Hamas’s hand in hostage talks ‘to help his polls in Michigan’

US President Joe Biden speaks on the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, April 5, 2024, in Dundalk, Maryland. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
US President Joe Biden speaks on the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, April 5, 2024, in Dundalk, Maryland. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden’s demand this week that Israel improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza and support a ceasefire drew sharp attacks both from frustrated political allies who said the US president did not go far enough and opponents who said he went too far.

On Thursday in a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden threatened to condition US support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza against Hamas on its taking concrete steps to protect aid workers and civilians.

It was the first time that Biden, a Democrat and a staunch supporter of Israel, has sought to leverage US aid as a way to influence Israeli military behavior.

The president has come under enormous pressure from his party’s left wing to do more to address the humanitarian catastrophe for Palestinian civilians from the devastating fighting in Gaza, nearly six months after the October 7 Hamas terror atrocities that started the war.

“There should not be a total blank check. We should not have a pattern where the Netanyahu government ignores the president of the United States and we just send more 2,000-pound bombs,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, told Reuters.

Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Biden also should be more “publicly vocal” about US expectations for the campaign in Gaza and take a new approach at the UN Security Council rather than blocking resolutions critical of Israel.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland speaks at Prince George’s Community College, Center for the Performing Arts, September 14, 2023, in Largo, Maryland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Other left-leaning politicians had similar complaints.

“One day the president is ‘angry’ at Netanyahu, the next day he is ‘very angry,’ the next day he is ‘very, very angry.’ So what? At the same time there is support for more military aid (to Israel) in a supplemental bill,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said on the Pod Save America podcast on Thursday.

“You cannot continue to talk about your worries about [a] humanitarian situation in Gaza and then give Netanyahu another $10 billion, or more bombs. You cannot do that. That is hypocritical,” he said.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said there should be an immediate ceasefire. “I do not believe that opening up a new crossing into Gaza is enough,” he said on MSNBC on Friday.

Israel has said it approved the reopening of the Erez crossing into northern Gaza and the temporary use of Ashdod Port in southern Israel, following the US demands to increase humanitarian aid supplies into Gaza.

Republicans, hostage families

While many Democrats criticized Biden for not going far enough, some Republicans, who have generally been more supportive of military aid for Israel, lashed out at Biden for his change in tactic.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas accused Biden of making the shift to aid his reelection chances. “To help his polls in Michigan, Joe Biden just strengthened Hamas’s negotiating position. He effectively encouraged Hamas to hold out and not release the hostages. Shameful,” Cotton said on X on Friday.

The Republican-led House Rules Committee announced on Friday that it would consider a resolution that “opposes efforts to place one-sided pressure on Israel with respect to Gaza, including calls for an immediate ceasefire,” citing Biden’s statement and his administration’s decision not to use its UN Security Council veto to block a resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Republican Representative Brian Mast of Florida, a member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement accused Biden of “trying to appease far-left lunatics by demanding Israel accept a ceasefire with terrorists.”

GOP Representative Brian Mast of Florida, wearing an IDF uniform, talks with reporters as Republicans hold a caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, October 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

Families of hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 said a push for a ceasefire without their release could be dangerous.

“A ceasefire with no deal, or even a partial deal, could be a death sentence for our son and other hostages,” Orna Neutra, mother of Omer Neutra, said Friday at a news conference with other hostage families in New York City.

‘Biden always had that leverage’

The White House declined to spell out how US policy would change if Israel does not meet Biden’s demands.

Israel has received more US foreign aid than any other country since World War II, although annual assistance has been dwarfed for two years by funding and military equipment sent to Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion.

The United States has traditionally shielded Israel in the UN Security Council, and vetoed three draft resolutions on the war in Gaza. It has also abstained three times to allow the 15-member council to take action — most recently last month when it demanded an immediate ceasefire.

Israel took action right after Biden put his foot down, others noted, suggesting it should have happened sooner.

“Within hours of Biden threatening to suspend US military aid to Israel, Netanyahu agrees to open a major crossing for humanitarian aid into northern Gaza, where starvation is widespread. Biden always had that leverage but wouldn’t use it,” said Kenneth Roth, former executive director at Human Rights Watch and now a professor at Princeton University’s School for Public and International Affairs.

Asked by Reuters on Thursday why Biden had shifted his position, White House spokesperson John Kirby said the president had been shaken by the Israeli attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers, which the Israel Defense Forces has called a “serious failure” and fired two senior officers over.

“I guess that some deaths count a whole lot more than others,” said Patrick Gaspard, president of the progressive-leaning Center for American Progress think tank, comparing Biden’s reaction to the deaths of the seven aid workers to the thousands already killed in the Gaza war.

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