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Biden vows to stand with Israel as war highlights Democratic rift on Hill

Split over Middle East fueled past primaries and could again

President Joe Biden listens to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he joins a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
President Joe Biden listens to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he joins a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden traveled to Tel Aviv on Wednesday in a high-stakes show of support following terrorist attacks by Hamas, even as Democratic divisions over Israel spilled into view and threatened to split the party as it gears up for the 2024 elections.

The divide was illustrated by an exchange in the aftermath of a blast at a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota who has long been critical of Israel, called bombing a hospital a war crime. “The [Israeli Defense Forces] reportedly blowing up one of the few places the injured and wounded can seek medical treatment and shelter during a war is horrific,” she posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., responded by noting that Hamas “intentionally murdered 1,300 Israelis and took 200 hostages because they are Jewish.” She told Omar: “You have been training your outrage on the wrong party. We do know that Hamas’ hatred is the catalyst.”

Biden on Wednesday shared his assessment that the attack was not carried out by the Israeli military; he declined to provide specifics other than to say it was based on “the data I was shown by my Defense Department.” The White House announced that Biden would address the nation about the situation in Israel on Thursday in prime time.

The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee echoed Biden’s assessment Wednesday, with Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., saying in a statement they were confident the tragedy “was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists.”

With Democrats reveling in the dysfunction of Republicans unable to agree on how to replace the House speaker, the growing crisis in the Middle East is exposing long-simmering tensions within Democratic Party. Younger voters, especially, tend to take a more critical view of Israel. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found that just 21 percent of voters aged 18-34 backed Biden’s policies toward Israel, compared with 37 percent of those aged 34-49 and 60 percent of those 65 and older. And more than half of voters under 35 were opposed to the U.S. sending military aid and weapons to Israel in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas from Gaza.

While the majority of Democrats issued statements denouncing Hamas and saying they “stand by Israel,” some progressive members of Congress have been critical of Israel’s response, and are urging the Biden administration to call on its ally to exercise restraint as IDF troops appeared to be preparing for a ground assault.

Avoid being ‘consumed by rage’

Completing a whirlwind trip to Israel, Biden emphasized that the United States was determined to give Israel the support needed to defeat Hamas. Biden’s administration repositioned military assets in the Mediterranean, and the president plans to submit a request to Congress for what he described as an “unprecedented support package” for security assistance.

“The world will know that Israel – Israel is stronger than ever,” Biden said in Tel Aviv. “And my message to any state or any other hostile actor thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago, don’t – don’t – don’t.”

The president also cautioned Israel’s leaders not to be “consumed by rage” and drew a sharp distinction between the terror group and the Palestinian people. He also announced $100 million in new humanitarian funding for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The U.S. Agency for International Development funds will be administered under heightened vetting procedures and will include support for safe drinking water, emergency food, hygiene support and health care services, said House Foreign Affairs ranking member Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y.

Some Democrats are pressing for an end to hostilities: On Tuesday, seven progressive House Democrats issued a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire or, at minimum, a temporary break in the fighting between Israel and Hamas. 

“Let us be clear: our call for a ceasefire should not be mistaken as a lack of support for the protection of the people of Israel,” Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas said in a statement. “To the contrary, it is because of our dedication to the safety of both Israelis and Palestinians that we seek a path forward without further escalating the toll of civilian dead and injured.”

But speaking to the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D.-N.Y., said a ceasefire would be “a very, very bad idea.”

“If Hamas is left to its own devices, it will repeat what it did,” Schumer, the nation’s highest-ranking Jewish elected official, told the group during a remote meeting on Wednesday. 

Schumer praised Biden for traveling to Israel and pledged “to get the largest, best, quickest package to help Israel” through the Senate.

Bowman challenger sought

The political implications of the Democrats’ divided response to Israel are beginning to play out. In New York’s 16th District, which is centered in Westchester County, the crisis in the Middle East has given fresh momentum to efforts to find a Democratic candidate to primary Rep. Jamaal Bowman. The Forward obtained a letter signed by more than two dozen rabbis urging Westchester County Executive George Latimer to run against Bowman.

Bowman did not attend Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress in July, citing Israel’s record on human rights, and voted against a resolution marking Israel’s 75th anniversary. But he also issued a lengthy statement last week denouncing Hamas’ attacks, calling the killing of Israeli civilians “unequivocally abhorrent.”

Republicans have been quick to attack progressive Democrats who have denounced Israel and expressed sympathy for the Palestinians. “What do you call it when you rush to pin the blame for atrocities on Israel, but go silent when the facts point to the terrorists? Anti-Semitism,” Will Reinert, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

A super PAC largely funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has spent millions on primaries in recent election cycles, sometimes putting challengers up against incumbents.

The group’s spokesman, Marshall Wittmann, said Biden’s trip to Israel “was a powerful demonstration of American solidarity with the Jewish state.”

Wittmann noted that there has been “an overwhelming outpouring of bipartisan congressional support for Israel’s right to self-defense,” including resolutions of support for Israel that have drawn near unanimous backing in both chambers. 

“There will be a time for political action, but right now our priority is building and sustaining congressional support for Israel’s fight to permanently dismantle Hamas,” Wittmann said.

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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