Politics / October 23, 2023

Biden’s Israel-Palestine Policy Could Cost Him the Election

The president’s blank-check support of Israel’s war on Gaza is alienating many of the Black and brown voters he needs to win reelection.

Elie Mystal

US President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023.

(Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) / Handout/ Anadolu via Getty Images)

I am neither Israeli or Palestinian, nor am I an expert on Middle Eastern geopolitics, terrorism, security, or colonization. I am an expert in American constitutional law, which, in this situation, is as useful as being an expert in sand-castle construction during a tsunami. As such, I have little to add to the current international conflagration and the foreign policy discourse around it. Instead, I have tried to read, listen, learn, and generally not say anything that could be used by the most morally bankrupt people to justify the murder of children, both Israeli and Palestinian.

However, I am an American, a Black one, who has a lot of experience listening to actual people of color even as their voices are drowned out or dismissed by the prevailing white media. As such, I believe it is in my remit to warn white readers that Joe Biden’s unwaveringly pro-Israeli stance has the potential to do significant harm to his prospects for reelection among voters he needs: young Black and brown people.

I know many people will not want to think about American political realities so soon after a terrorist attack—while Israel continues to pummel Gaza with air strikes, and Hamas continues to hold Israeli hostages. But, as a person who desperately wants to stop the antidemocratic tide of MAGA-style fascism in my own country, I cannot help but be concerned.

Biden risks labeling himself as a president who is in favor of colonization, and one who will turn a blind eye to ethnic cleansing and war crimes—and those are tough labels to shake once they take hold in communities of color. Voters of color are strategic, and willing to swallow a lot of nonsense and vote for the lesser evil. But there are some who will simply not pull the lever for any president, in any party, who stands aside while an oppressed people is besieged, starved, and bombed into oblivion. Even if you don’t think Israel is a colonial power, or don’t think the Israeli government is violating the human rights of Palestinians as they wage war against Hamas, the Americans who do think those things are voters Biden is losing right now. Those are the kinds of voters who, once lost, Biden will never win back.

Separate and apart from Israel’s legitimate efforts to secure the release of its citizens taken as hostages, and secure itself from terrorist threats, there are those in and around the Israeli government who have used plainly genocidal language to describe the conflict, calling Palestinians “human animals,” denying that Palestinian “civilians” have any rights because Hamas is their elected leadership (elected in 2006, by the way, and Hamas has not allowed those civilians to hold an election since), or saying that the war is between “the children of the light and the children of the dark.” Biden has not condemned this language nor has he issued public warnings to Israel that the United States will not stand for human rights violations, nor has he stood shoulder to shoulder, “in solidarity,” with any Palestinian American (or any Muslim American, or any Arab American, or any non-white American) calling for a basic respect for human rights.

Instead, his State Department warned diplomats not to use the words or phrases “de-escalation,” “ceasefire,” “end to violence,” and even “restoring calm.” His press secretary said calls from Democratic Congresspeople calling for de-escalation and peace were “repugnant” and “disgraceful.”

Biden’s refusal to publicly call for peace or even restraint could be doing irreparable harm to him (to say nothing, obviously, of the harm it’s doing to millions of people in the region). There is scant polling data on the issue so far, but what there is suggests a huge generational divide, and a racial one. An NPR/PBS poll taken last week showed that while 65 percent of Americans overall think the country should publicly support Israel, including 86 percent of baby boomers, that number drops to 48 percent in the case of Gen Z Americans. The racial divide is also dramatic, with 72 percent of white Americans favoring US support for Israel, compared to just 51 percent of what the pollsters call “nonwhite” Americans.

Beyond these numbers, it doesn’t take a degree in political science to know that Biden already has a problem with young voters and especially young voters of color. Recent polls taken even before Biden’s response to the Israel-Gaza war have shown Biden losing to Donald Trump among voters under 30. And there have already been significant warning signs that Biden is slipping with Black voters.

Does anybody really think that giving a foreign government free rein to bomb areas of land as densely packed as the island of Manhattan is helping Biden with young voters and people of color? Or did everybody just not think about that in their zeal to make sure college students who support Palestine can never get a job?

People should remember that Biden’s age is already a turnoff to young people, and his domestic policy agenda has largely been frustrated by Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Republican control of the House, and the Supreme Court. The issues Biden is running on in communities of color are, essentially, democracy and the rejection of racism. He’s running against the MAGA brand of nativism and fascism. He’s running on his own personal decency.

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Biden can, entirely appropriately, call terrorist attacks against Israelis “pure evil,” but he can’t seem to fix his mouth to say “turn on the water to civilians living in a desert.” He can say that Palestinian people deserve dignity and respect, but can’t unequivocally say “cutting off electricity to civilians is a human rights violation.” I’m sorry, but it’s hard to see Biden’s personal decency when he can’t speak up for the thirsty. Biden is asking Black and brown voters to trust that he values all lives equally, but that becomes almost impossible to believe when he endorses the treatment of Palestinians as collateral damage to a counterterrorism campaign.

There are signs that Biden’s posture is causing rifts within his own administration. Last week, State Department official Josh Paul quit. Paul was responsible for processing arms sales to foreign nations. In his resignation letter, he said Biden’s “blind support for one side” were “shortsighted, destructive, unjust and contradictory to the very values we publicly espouse.” When the guy who oversees arms deals is essentially saying “this is too violent for me,” we may have a problem. More worrying, there has been a lot of private griping from Muslim Americans within the Biden administration, with some threatening to resign en masse.

When I read or listen to white people in the media talking about Biden’s approach to this crisis—I’ve heard pundits call Biden’s trip to Israel his “finest hour”—I’m left with the impression that they just don’t know or haven’t considered how electorally disastrous it could be for Biden to lose Muslim and Arab American support. There are over 200,000 Muslims living in Virginia; there are 150,000 Arab Americans; in 2020, Biden won that state by around only 500,000 votes. In Michigan, there are over 350,000 Muslims; 200,000 Arab Americans live in the state; Biden won that state by around only 150,000 votes. Any significant weakening of this support puts Virginia in play, and makes Michigan functionally unwinnable for Biden. And I shouldn’t have to tell you that there is simply no path to Biden’s Electoral College success without Virginia and Michigan.

If we broaden things out beyond the Muslim and Arab American populations, there are other dangers. If young, college-age people of color sour on Biden and stay home, Biden has problems across the upper Midwest. And anything less than overwhelming and enthusiastic support from African American voters costs Biden Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Perhaps in response to this basic electoral math, Biden has in recent days appeared to soften his tone. In an address to the nation from the Oval Office on Thursday night, Biden tried to express empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians. He denounced anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. He said that we “can’t ignore the humanity of the Palestinian people,” and said that Israel would follow the “laws of war” and protect Palestinian civilians “as best they can.” During his visit to Israel last week, Biden said that Israel should not make the same mistakes this country made after 9/11, an extraordinary statement both because American presidents don’t often admit to war mistakes, particularly on foreign soil, and because this particular American president was, in fact, a cheerleader for our post-9/11 wars of vengeance.

The president used nice words, but it escaped no one’s notice that he was saying all of these appropriate words regarding the dignity and humanity of the Palestinian people while justifying his request to send billions of dollars in military aid and weapons to Israel. Biden did not call for a cease-fire, did not call for a de-escalation, and did not even call for “peace.”

I know that some people, establishment politicians especially, want this speech to be enough. They want to acknowledge the humanity of Palestinians, while treating the government actively denying them human rights as a passive force without alternative choices. But that frame simply isn’t working on voters of color who know all too well how powerful governments justify killing us. From where I sit, his speech did nothing to instill confidence in voters of color that Biden will take a stand against war crimes. His “bear-hug Bibi” strategy (which is to say, the idea that Biden should get close enough to the Israeli government that he can use soft power to restrain it) might play well in diplomatic circles and among voters who are inclined to give Biden the benefit of the doubt, but, on the street, all people are seeing is the blank check Biden appears to be giving to Israel, and none of the restraint. This isn’t a “messaging” problem for the Biden administration. The problem is that Biden’s actions scream to the world that he values an Israeli child more than a Palestinian one.

It also must be said that Biden’s lack of support for Palestinians is being viewed in the context of his enthusiastic support for Ukraine. The situations are far from analogous, but Biden literally linked his support for Ukraine and support for Israel together in his Oval Office address. It’s a politically tone-deaf comparison for Biden to make, because linking the two doesn’t work in his favor. It’s simply not lost on voters of color that when a white country was invaded, Biden sent guns and missiles and money, while all he seems to have for Palestinians is some bottles of water chucked at them from Egypt, and the hard-won pronouncement that not every single one of them is a terrorist who should be deleted from existence.

Remember too that, whenever the Republican House of Representatives stops beclowning itself as comic relief for the rest of the world, the very first thing they’re going to do is pass a massive aid package, at Biden’s request, that sends literal billions of dollars to Ukraine and Israel. I can tell you right now, that package is going to go over like a bag of bricks among Black voters. While Biden is functionally making it rain on foreign allies, the child poverty rate—which disproportionately affects Black families—has doubled. Is it fair to blame Biden for Manchin’s inconceivable decision to let American kids go hungry? No. Is it easy to explain to a struggling Black family why we have money to aid Ukraine and Israel but not Detroit and Philadelphia? No, it is not.

Let me first say that, as a Black person, I am getting really sick of white liberals using Trump as a specter who will emerge from white people’s closets to punish Black people for anything less than full-throated support of Biden. Just ask Jim Jordan how threatening people you need to vote for you works out.

Moreover, I feel like white commentators too easily forget that we live in a country where Trump is a looming threat only because a significant majority of their own cousins and uncles and spouses are set, once again, to vote for a raving orange clown, no matter how many times he gets indicted for crimes. White folks are the ones threatening the future of American democracy: To save it, Democrats need supermajorities of Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Arab American voters, and they need Black people to continue supporting Democrats by well over 80 percent margins, and they need all those groups to turn out. So, just maybe, the white anti-Trump crowd could listen to voters of color with some respect when they try to tell you what’s wrong with their political approach.

In any event, the “Trump would be worse” argument, while unquestionably true, isn’t the slam-dunk white Democrats want it to be. At least not now, when Biden is the one in charge, and Biden is the one standing with a hard-right foreign regime that is perceived as denying political participation, freedom, and basic human rights to an oppressed population.

Of course “now” is an important word when discussing the politics of the moment. A reasonable defense of Biden’s political calculus is, perhaps, not that his position is defensible to voters of color but that in 13 months many of those voters won’t care about his indefensible positions. I’ve certainly noticed that at least some of the people who are suddenly concerned about a free Palestine couldn’t have found the Gaza Strip on a map before Hamas killed over a thousand Israelis. People who didn’t care about the intolerable conditions in Gaza three weeks ago might well not care about the situation there 13 months from now. If there is one thing I know for a locked fact about the American electorate, white, Black, brown, or other, it’s that we are a fickle, ill-informed, deeply unserious people.

And yet, the fact is that this war has scarcely begun. Israel is preparing for a ground invasion (one that Biden has given his “private backing” to, of course), and when it invades, its soldiers will be fighting an urban war against a terrorist group using guerrilla tactics. It will not be quick. It will not be pretty. Civilians will die. Pictures of the dead will be shared on the Internet. And even if the war does somehow, remarkably, end soon, the larger situation will remain far from resolved.

I don’t think Biden or his administration knows how bad it has been for him with his non-white base over the past few weeks. I know that while some people have tried to get the message through privately, many of the people, like me, who would normally be raising the alarm publicly have been terrified of saying anything. Speaking for myself, I’m worried that anything less than full-throated support for the Biden administration and the Israeli government will be amplified by anti-Semites to justify the slaughter of Jews, and I’m also worried that anything less than full-throated support for the Biden administration and the Israeli government—literally any sympathy for the plight of Palestinians—will be twisted in such a way as to label me a terrorist sympathizer who stands with Hamas. For the first time in my life, I’d rather be writing about Clarence Thomas.

But I write because I want Biden to get reelected, and that simply cannot happen without the overwhelming support of young people and people of color. I write because the Arab American activist who has to go door to door in their community to drum up votes for Biden in Michigan is getting no help from the administration. I write because the Black voter registration volunteer who is trying to get people excited to vote for Biden is getting laughed out of the apocryphal barber shop. I write because Biden is losing, and if he continues to only listen to white media pundits who go on Fox News to laud his speeches, he will spend 2025 working on his presidential library from Delaware.

If you see Biden running around next October playing defense in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, you’ll know that he got this message too late. Democrats have a nasty habit of listening to non-white voters for only six weeks every four years. If Biden tries that strategy this time, Black and brown voters might stay home, and white people will elect Trump to unleash Armageddon.

Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and the host of its legal podcast, Contempt of Court. He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times bestseller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution, published by The New Press. Elie can be followed @ElieNYC.

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