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Spared angry protests at Morehouse, Biden pushes post-war Gaza plan

Poll: 44 percent of Democrats frustrated by president’s handling of conflict

President Joe Biden speaks at the Morehouse College Commencement on Sunday in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden speaks at the Morehouse College Commencement on Sunday in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden was not shouted down by pro-Palestinian protesters Sunday at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, but he used a commencement speech to address the anger that has fired up many other campuses and sent a key signal about his Middle East policy.

The speech at the private, all-male historically Black college was billed as a potential early touchstone of the 2024 campaign. At an event that featured only a few silent protests, Biden delivered a speech on a wide range of topics to mostly polite applause at a time he has lost support among Black voters.

Free from the distractions of protesters and hecklers that have interrupted some of his public remarks this year, Biden instead used the graduation address to urge stakeholders in the Middle East to begin discussing how post-war Gaza will be secured and governed.

“What’s happening in Gaza and Israel is heartbreaking. Hamas’s vicious attack on Israel, killing innocent lives and holding people hostage. I was there nine days after, pictures of tying a mother and a daughter with a rope, pouring kerosene on them, burning them and watching as they died,” the president said. “Innocent Palestinians caught in the middle of all this. Men, women and children killed or displaced … in desperate need of water, food and medicine. It’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“That’s why I’ve called for an immediate ceasefire — an immediate ceasefire to stop the fighting, bring the hostages home,” he added to applause. “And I’ve been working on a deal as we speak, working around the clock to lead an international effort to get more aid into Gaza, rebuild Gaza.”

But then Biden added a new objective to his policy approach to the conflict and region.

“I’m also working around the clock for more than just one ceasefire. I’m working to bring the region together. I’m working to build a lasting, durable peace,” Biden told graduates and their guests. “Because the question is, as you see what’s going on in Israel today: What after? What after Hamas? What happens then? What happens in Gaza? What rights do the Palestinian people have? I’m working to make sure we finally get a two-state solution — the only solution for [the] two people to live in peace, security and dignity.”

That’s a goal that Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, described as “both simple and complex” during a White House briefing last week.

As Biden was speaking to Morehouse graduates, Sullivan was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet in Jerusalem. Sullivan echoed Biden’s words about a new Gaza governing structure — and put a finer point on the administration’s latest policy effort since Hamas killed 1,400 people in Israel on Oct. 7.

Sullivan landed in Jerusalem after huddling with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, a conversation the White House said in a Sunday statement included talks about “a comprehensive vision for an integrated Middle East region.” To that end, Sullivan briefed Netanyahu on his discussion with the Saudi leader “and the potential that may now be available for Israel, as well as the Palestinian people,” according to the White House.

Sullivan then added a new demand of Netanyahu and his war cabinet, urging them to “connect its military operations to a political strategy that can ensure the lasting defeat of Hamas, the release of all the hostages and a better future for Gaza.”

Biden’s top national security aide also met with Palestinian officials, delivering a similar message about post-conflict Gaza. With Palestinian Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority officials, Sullivan discussed their “reform agenda and the importance of the international community providing financial support to enable this new government to succeed,” according to another White House statement released Monday.

‘Angers and frustrates’

Lawmakers from both parties, as well as former officials and analysts, have urged U.S., Israeli and Arab leaders to begin sketching a path ahead for post-war Gaza.

“When we first went into Iraq and Afghanistan, we thought we could just kill terrorists and that would be enough. It took us a while to learn that the key in a counterinsurgency campaign is not just killing terrorists, although you do have to do that, it’s winning the support of the population,” Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a Marine Corps company commander during America’s military operation in Iraq, told CNN last week.

“That’s why limiting civilian casualties is so important, providing humanitarian aid and having a political end game that both sides can believe. Israel still hasn’t explained that to the world,” added Moulton, ranking member of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee.

But Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., an Army veteran who also served in the Iraq conflict, late last week criticized Biden even before the new push for a post-war governance process.

Speaking about Netanyahu, Steube said he and “a lot” of other House Republicans “100 percent support what he’s doing” because “he’s got to eradicate Hamas from Gaza, so that they can have some semblance of peace over there.”

“And it’s, again, it’s very sad that we have an administration not supporting him .. doing it,” Steube told Fox Business Network. “But good on [Netanyahu] to do what’s right for Israel, despite the fact that America is not going to stand with him.”

The pivot by Biden and Sullivan came as the president is running in a neck-and-neck national race with former President Donald Trump, according to multiple polls. Other surveys show Trump leading in a handful of key and possible battleground states, though his lead has shrunk in recent weeks.

The new focus emerged as Biden and his campaign team are attempting to piece back together his 2020 winning voting coalition, with several key blocs that typically vote Democratic upset with him. Black voters and Arab American voters are among them. And multiple polls show a divide among Democrats over his handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict and the humanitarian situation inside Gaza.

Forty-four percent of registered Democrats expressed disapproval of the president’s handling of the situation, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll released Sunday. Just over half — 51 percent — of surveyed registered Democrats disapproved of how Biden treated pro-Palestinian protests on U.S. college campuses, according to the same poll.

“This is one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. And there’s nothing easy about it,” Biden told Morehouse graduates Sunday. “I know it angers and frustrates many of you, including my family. But most of all, I know it breaks your heart. It breaks mine as well.”

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