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In Embrace of Israel’s War, Biden Provokes Arab and Muslim Backlash

The pope and the U.N. secretary general both called for a cease-fire. So have myriad other humanitarian agencies and organizations, as well as foreign governments — all horrified by the relentless bombardments that have led to a mounting Palestinian death toll in the besieged Gaza Strip. And U.S. activists have also demanded that the fighting cease for the sake of Palestinian lives as well as Israeli hostages abducted by Islamist group Hamas when it orchestrated the hideous Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel.

On Wednesday, a left-wing Jewish American rabbi called on President Biden during an event in Minnesota to follow suit. “As a rabbi, I need you to call for a cease-fire right now,” the heckler shouted at the president. Biden responded, saying that “I think we need a pause” to allow for time to free and evacuate Hamas’s hostages, but he did not voice a desire for a full cease-fire.

There is little love lost between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose days in office, the White House believes, are numbered. In private, Biden officials reportedly worked in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s outrageous attack — an atrocity that marked the deadliest day in the history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust — to restrain the scope of the Israeli response. It later pushed Israel to allow a small amount of humanitarian relief into the Gaza Strip, while also cajoling Israeli authorities to end a communications blackout it imposed on Gaza last weekend.

But after Oct. 7, the Biden administration effectively greenlit an Israeli campaign of retribution against Hamas that has unquestionably caused considerable civilian harm. Two weeks ago, the United States vetoed a mildly worded U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for a “humanitarian pause” — language Biden and his lieutenants now seem more willing to use, no matter the devastation that’s taken place in the days in between. At the time of writing, authorities in Gaza said the death toll was 9,061, including more than 3,700 children.

The Biden administration championed Israel’s right to defend itself as it saw fit. In multiple speeches, Biden made clear there was no daylight between the United States and Israel and unveiled plans to boost U.S. military aid to the Jewish state by billions of dollars. Unlike leaders and diplomats in other parts of the world, U.S. officials were more subdued in their expressions of concern for the civilians killed amid relentless Israeli aerial bombardments. Biden enraged many when he appeared to dismiss the Gaza death toll as unreliable, given the domineering role played by Hamas over the territory’s institutions. (As The Washington Post’s Fact Checker observed, the Gaza Health Ministry has “a pretty good track record with its death estimates over the years.”) A handful of Democratic lawmakers have issued statements this week urging Israel to reconsider its current approach.

For many onlookers in the United States and elsewhere, Biden’s more recent gestures toward equivocation — including his rhetorical support for a “pause” — are too late. An astonishing poll among Arab Americans published Tuesday found that backing for Biden and Democrats has cratered since Oct. 7, given the administration’s staunch support for Israel. Arab American favorability for Biden stood at 59 percent in 2020, but has now slumped to a stunning 17 percent. For the first time since the 1997 inception of the poll, conducted by John Zogby Strategies and commissioned by the Arab American Institute, a majority of Arab Americans do not identify as Democrats.

That spells trouble for Biden in the upcoming election year, given the concentration of Arab American voters in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Speaking at a Tuesday panel that I moderated, Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, pointed to how the poll showed significant majorities of Arab Americans concerned with mounting antisemitism and Islamophobia in the country, and indicated that Arab American attitudes may reflect a broader American mainstream position. Other polls suggest a majority of Americans are in favor of an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

“The onus is on the Biden administration to understand that [its current approach] isn’t working on the moral level, but it’s also not working on the political level,” Berry told me at the event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On Thursday, possibly in a bid to course correct, the White House announced somewhat vague plans to develop a strategy to counter Islamophobia. The announcement was supposed to come the previous week, but, according to my colleague Hannah Allam, stalled amid pressure from Muslim American and Arab American interlocutors with the White House to keep the focus right now on the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

It also will do little to change the perceptions of U.S. partners elsewhere. Ahead of embarking on another trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced his concerns for the loss of Palestinian lives. “When I see a Palestinian child — a boy, a girl pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building — that hits me in the gut as much as seeing a child in Israel or anywhere else,” he said.

But he will face Arab diplomats who want to see the war end right now and the United States to apply pressure on Israel to rein back the violence. A statement from the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said that the country’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, will press Blinken when they meet on Saturday “to move immediately to stop the Israeli war on Gaza … and that Israel abide by international law and stop its breaches.”

As part of its desire to strengthen the U.S.’s geopolitical hand against China, the Biden administration had embraced the efforts started by former president Donald Trump to bring Israel together with a clutch of Arab monarchies that shared its antipathy with Iran. An expanding set of “Abraham Accord” agreements and potential Israeli-Saudi normalization, in the White House’s view, would create an anchor of stability in the region and help preserve U.S. interests at a time when China is steadily shouldering its way into the Middle East.

But Israeli-Saudi rapprochement now appears in deep freeze, while Abraham Accord countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have denounced the current course of events. “The last few weeks have really called into question — if not outright demolished — a lot of presumptions that were governing U.S. policy in the region,” Matt Duss, executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, told me at the same panel, gesturing to the Biden administration’s delusion that it could “stitch together a bunch of arms agreements with authoritarian governments and call that peace.”

Duss added that Biden’s embrace of Israel’s bombing campaign cuts against the legacy he had built in supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion. “There have been some very important principles of international law and the liberal international order that [Biden officials] have articulated about why what they are doing [in backing Kyiv] is important,” Duss said. “I think they have spent the past three weeks burning that to the ground. They have shown that there is an egregious double standard.”


(c) 2023, The Washington Post

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