White House grapples with internal divisions on Israel-Gaza

The Hamas attacks and Israeli reaction have roiled the Biden team like no other issue during his presidency.

The Hamas attacks and Israeli reaction have roiled the Biden team like no other issue during his presidency. Earlier this month, a group of about 20 distressed White House staffers requested a meeting with President Biden’s top advisers, as Israel’s war in Gaza entered its sixth week, writes ‘The Washington Post’.

The previously unreported meeting of officials underscores how Biden’s handling of what is arguably the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency is dividing a White House that has prided itself on running a disciplined and united operation. The Israel-Gaza war has roiled the administration more than any other issue in Biden’s first three years in office, according to numerous aides and allies inside and outside the White House, as staffers agonize over their positions on highly emotional issues.

Adding to the sensitivity, the unwavering embrace of Israel that many staffers find upsetting stems in large part from Biden’s personal lifelong attachment to the Jewish state, aides said. Biden often cites his 1973 meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir as a seminal event that crystallized his view of Israel as critical for Jewish survival.

At the time, Israel was 25 years old, a left-leaning nation and a military underdog, struggling to find its way in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Now Israel is a military powerhouse led by a far-right coalition, and the Biden administration has become identified with a military campaign that has killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, created a humanitarian disaster and damaged America’s moral authority in much of the world.

Yet there are limits to how much the United States has been able to influence Israel’s actions as it largely refrains from criticizing them publicly. “I think the administration has realized from quite early on that it was in a bind,” said Ivo Daalder, chief executive of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who served as NATO ambassador under President Barack Obama.

“And it was in a bind not only because of Biden’s own predilection, which is real and strong and important,” Daalder said, but because of the political costs of breaking with Israel, especially after the bloody Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,200 people and resulted in over 200 hostages taken.

White House officials contend that Biden’s “bear hug” approach to Israel has given him credibility with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, allowing the president to exert the kind of pressure that led to the current hostage deal and fighting pause. U.S. officials are using the pause to urge Israel to make its expected military operation in the south of Gaza, where nearly 2 million Palestinians are concentrated, more targeted and less deadly, according to two senior administration officials.

Biden’s foreign policy team has long been mindful of the influence of Washington’s pro-Israel lobbying organizations. But the changing demographics of key swing states, such as Michigan, home to a growing Arab American community, is prompting some Democratic analysts to question the conventional political wisdom.

The division inside the White House is to some degree between Biden’s senior longtime aides and an array of younger staffers of diverse backgrounds. But even top advisers said they recognize the conflict has hurt America’s global standing.

Many in the White House have been aware since the outset of the political peril that the conflict poses for Biden.

Some in Biden’s circle worry that he does not distinguish between an idealistic image of the state of Israel and the reality of the Netanyahu government, which includes several representatives from the far right. “The president’s personal historical commitment to Israel was not modulated by the reality that this Israel happens to have a government that is the worst government it’s ever had,” an ally of the administration said. “Biden has underestimated the degree to which you have to separate how Israel reacts to this and how a Netanyahu government reacts to this.”

For much of his presidency, Biden did not prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue in his foreign policy, spending far more time on issues such as China and the Russia-Ukraine war. He spent years watching American presidents try and fail to bring comprehensive peace to the region, and concluded that such efforts would fail unless the Israelis and Palestinians had leaders who were deeply committed to the process. That meant tat when the attacks erupted, the United States did not have a significant engagement in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

The central dispute between Biden and Netanyahu is not over a cease-fire, which neither supports, but over the view in Washington that Israel has an unacceptable standard for proportionality. In its effort to eliminate Hamas, Israel is using powerful bombs, leveling neighborhoods and taking down high-rise buildings, tactics that inevitably kill large numbers of civilians and, many argue, further radicalize the Palestinian population.

U.S. officials said Biden has taken a more confrontational approach to Israel in public and in private in recent weeks, even if it is not always obvious to the public. “Biden has banged Bibi really hard on settler violence and civilian casualties in private,” one official said. Biden has told reporters that the “humanitarian pauses” by Israel in its bombing campaign should have happened sooner and gone on longer.

Many senior officials fear Israel will not show restraint as it moves its operation to the south of Gaza and worry the longer the conflict goes on, the more harmful it will be for Biden politically and diplomatically, ‘The Washington Post’ concludes.

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