Nervous Democrats press Biden on Gaza before state of the union

Connie Queline

Nervous Democrats press Biden on Gaza before state of the union

Mainstream Democrats, watching the politics around Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip shift against them, are pressing President Joe Biden to become far more outspoken in his criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government and far more upfront in his demands for a long-term solution to the conflict that includes a Palestinian state.
At the outset of the war, with memories fresh from Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel that took around 1,200 lives, Jewish Democrats who had grown restive more than a year ago over Netanyahu’s governance largely rallied around Biden as he sided firmly with Israel.
But as the death toll in Gaza rises inexorably, many are pleading with the president not so much to change policies but to become the voice of his administration’s own demands for a Ramadan cease-fire, more humanitarian aid, more restraint of Jewish settler violence and a long-term peace that includes a Palestinian state.
“We are hoping that a strategy for peace and an end to this nightmare will be laid out at the State of the Union,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a prominent Jewish Democrat, said Wednesday. “Nobody can question Biden’s commitment to the security of Israel, and nobody can question his commitment over the course of his career to human rights and international law. Now is the time when the world needs to see American leadership for peace.”
Raskin, returning to earlier criticism of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, added, “Democrats feel we don’t take orders from right-wing politicians in America, and we shouldn’t be taking orders from right-wing politicians in another country.”
More than a dozen Jewish Democrats in the House spearheaded a critical letter late last month demanding Biden “redouble” his efforts to achieve a cease-fire that facilitates more humanitarian aid to starving people in Gaza. Many of the same lawmakers Wednesday warned against an Israeli strike on the city of Rafah, along the Gaza-Egypt border, where hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians have sheltered.
Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado returned from the region Wednesday speaking out against “extremist settler violence against Palestinian civilians” in the West Bank and the “urgent need for far more robust and consistent” humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., took to the Senate floor to call out far-right IsraeUli Cabinet members Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich by name for blocking food relief. Van Hollen invoked federal law that says military assistance must be withheld from a government that blocks US humanitarian assistance. On Wednesday, he stressed that such a blockade would exclude air and missile defense systems, and he reiterated his demand for an answer from the State Department on why the law has not already been invoked.
The leaders of those efforts do not come from the far left of the party, which has been critical almost from the start of the Israel-Hamaswar, but firmly from the Democrats’ mainstream.
“I want the president to use his leverage to get a cease-fire and to get the desperately needed humanitarian aid in,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a veteran lawmaker from Massachusetts. “Some of us are frustrated. We have more leverage here than we’re using.”
Patrick Gaspard, a former Obama administration ambassador to South Africa who now heads the Center for American Progress, the think tank of the Democratic establishment, used social media this week to say that the federal government “has to airdrop aid into Gaza because the Netanyahu government isn’t allowing food in to starving population, while firing on hundreds of civilians.”
Gaspard added, “This is the surreal, impotent and cruel reality.”
That is in part because the political risks for Democrats are obvious. Tuesday night’s celebration for Rep. Adam Schiff, a Jewish Democrat who finished first in the race to take an open Senate seat in California, was marred by raucous demonstrators who shouted “Free Palestine” and “Let Gaza live.”
Even critics of Israel, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, are contending with hecklers demanding that they take stronger stands against Israel. Biden, on Tuesday night, weathered yet another embarrassment when “uncommitted” won nearly 46,000 votes — 19% of the total — in the Minnesota primary amid a campaign by Democrats protesting his policies in Gaza.
Democrats say they are not looking for wholesale shifts in US policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made it clear the administration only sees a long-term peace through the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state. The State Department is looking for new points of entry for far more humanitarian aid to starving civilians in Gaza, and department officials have singled out “ministers of the Israeli government” for blocking the release of flour and supporting protests that have stopped the flow of food aid.
And Vice President Kamala Harris, last weekend, was more forceful in her demand for an “immediate cease-fire” over Ramadan this month, putting the onus on Hamas as well as Israel.
“It’s imperative that the United States uphold our commitment to ending this conflict,” Booker said Wednesday, after returning from consultations in Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. “We must remember that the path toward a just and lasting peace is dependent upon our renewed commitment to a comprehensive two-state solution.”
But Democrats say Biden needs to be the face of such policies.
“Most Democrats would love to see President Biden, whose emotional intelligence is soaring, acknowledge and recognize the humanity of everyone who is caught up in this nightmare in Israel and Gaza,” Raskin said.
McGovern was more blunt with his State of the Union demands: “I want him to say the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Gaza is unacceptable and I’m going to do something about it,” he said, “and I’m going to do more than issue a statement.”
The tension is almost sure to play out Thursday night at the State of the Union address. Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana has made a show of inviting Mia Schem, a freed Jewish hostage captured Oct. 7 by Hamas. The families of no fewer than 17 hostages will be on hand Thursday night to remind Biden of their ongoing captivity, as guests of Republicans and Democrats.
“As Hamas’ propagandists and unwitting accomplices seek to turn the world against Israel, it’s crucial that we remain steadfast, remember who started this war, and not forget the hostages and their loved ones,” Representative Mike Lawler, Representative for New York, told The Jewish Insider.
On the other side, Representative Cori Bush, D-Mo, an outspoken critic of Israel and of the Biden administration, will bring Intimaa Salama, a Palestinian dentist and graduate student from St. Louis University.
“Thirty-five of Dr. Salama’s family members have been killed in the last over 150 days,” Bush said in announcing her guest. “This is an incalculable loss.”
Most Democrats are careful to say their demands are in concert with the administration, not in opposition to it. More than 30 House Democrats on Wednesday released a letter “to express our deep sense of urgency and alarm about the potentially devastating consequences to innocent civilians of an Israeli military ground invasion of Rafah.”
The letter also denounced “calls from members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government for illegal policies such as the expulsion and transfer of civilians.”
But the Democrats stressed they were merely “backing warnings from Biden administration officials.”
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