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As Gaza burns, the old Democratic playbook on Israel is becoming risky

Biden is taking a huge hit in the polls for his approach to the Israel-Gaza war.

Earlier this month, progressive Democratic strategist Waleed Shahid argued in a column for MSNBC that President Joe Biden was risking his re-election by alienating his Muslim and Arab American supporters with his staunch support of Israel in its response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. As interested as I was in the argument, I was skeptical that the aggrieved populations cited were big enough — or truly committed enough to defecting from the Democrats — to significantly threaten Biden’s 2024 odds. 

But a new political reality is emerging that suggests that Biden’s problem may be bigger than just disaffected Muslim and Arab Americans. The pollsters who conducted a new NBC News poll connect Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war to his hitting the lowest approval rating of his presidency. The survey found that 51% of Democrats and a plurality of young voters, 42%, believe Israel has gone too far in its military operations. The poll also found that 41% of Democrats disapprove of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war and that 49% oppose providing military aid to Israel, something Biden has pushed for vociferously. 

A growing share of Democrats believe Israel’s response has been too extreme and that the Democratic Party is too supportive of that response.

“This poll is a stunner, and it’s stunning because of the impact the Israel-Hamas war is having on Biden,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, who conducted the survey alongside a Democratic pollster.

The findings track with a raft of recent polls that show that as Israel has pursued a policy of collective punishment in Gaza, a growing share of Democrats believe Israel’s response has been too extreme and that the Democratic Party is too supportive of that response. The party is splitting over one of the biggest foreign policy crises of Biden's presidency.

It’s a significant development. For a long time the Democratic playbook has been to offer mild criticisms of Israeli settlements in the West Bank but never to question the norm of expressing unwavering diplomatic support for Israel, shielding Israel from condemnation at the United Nations and providing Israel with extraordinary amounts of economic and military aid. “You may be strong enough on your own to defend yourself. But as long as America exists, you will never ever have to. We will always be there by your side,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the Oct. 7 attacks. But if Israel-Gaza remains a high-profile issue, then Biden has reason to think of the old playbook as a potential political liability ahead of 2024. 

There are a number of possible explanations for the uptick in sympathy for Palestinians during this round of hostilities. Israel has a long history of using extreme force in Gaza military operations that kill a disproportionate number of civilians, but this time the intensity and scope of the operation are much larger — and the whole world is watching. Moreover, the way the world is watching is also different. Today’s social media ecosystem allows firsthand and often graphic video of injured and dead civilians in Gaza (alongside huge amounts of misleading misinformation) to spread outside of professional newsgathering operations and influence perception of the conflict far more quickly and intensely than during previous conflicts in the territory. On top of all that, Israel’s high-profile use of collective punishment in Gaza is most likely accelerating an ongoing generational shift away from affinity for Israel in America. 

It’s becoming increasingly clear that progressive Democrats and young people are more willing to diverge from supporting Israel’s treatment of Palestinians than previously assumed. It’s just as clear that there’s no way Biden could’ve acted after Oct. 7 that wouldn’t have alienated a key constituency. Had he broken from decades of traditional partnership with Israel as it geared up to respond to the attacks, he would’ve come under fire from more centrist and older Democrats — and most likely would’ve been torched by the establishment media and many pro-Israel advocacy groups. 

As international allies like France have broken with Israel and a spirited protest movement has erupted in the U.S. — and around the world — the Biden administration has issued some mild concerns about Israel’s seeming disregard for civilian life. But in the main, the Biden administration remains a fierce ally of Israel and is still trying to shield it from controversy and sanctions by, for example, refusing to answer whether it believes Israel is complying with international law.

Could Biden’s approach to Israel play a significant role in whether he gets re-elected? We’re too far out from Election Day to know. American voters rarely consider foreign policy a top tier issue, but there are exceptions — and this could be one of them.

But there are a lot of variables. It’s unclear how long Israel’s military operation will last, how it will be resolved, how salient it will be in the national consciousness in the months before the election, and what role — if any — Biden plays in any potential end of hostilities. It also depends on how protest movements evolve over time: that is, whether they fade in the coming weeks and months or whether they maintain momentum and pose demands that Biden never responds to. (One can't help but notice shades of 1968's chaotic Democratic National Convention at a recent protest outside the  Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.) And last, if Donald Trump is the GOP nominee, it’s unclear whether a left disenchanted with Biden’s Israel policy would be inclined to check out of an electoral process when an aspiring autocrat is on the ballot. What we do know is that the old conventional wisdom in Washington of ignoring the fate of Palestinians appears to be a riskier proposition than it was in the past.