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On Joe Biden’s questionable retreat from Gaza.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023. (Photo by GPO/ Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

A good sign of whether protests are working is whether sympathizers are mad at the media for covering them.

The point of political agitation is to raise awareness about a cause and ultimately to gain public support for it. If you’re begging the press to take the awareness down a notch, chances are your efforts are seriously backfiring.

I wonder why.

I’m not the patriot that I used to be but I bristled recently at the indignity done to images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin by decking them out in the trappings of Hamas savages. Basic persuasion requires respecting your audience’s cultural sensitivities; making a spectacle of your contempt for them instead does indeed have the makings of a major backfire. 

At a minimum, if your demonstrations are inspiring frat bros to show up and challenge you to a push-up contest, they haven’t achieved the gravitas you were aiming for.

This isn’t just conjecture on my part. As we’ll see, there’s statistical evidence that the protests aren’t working. And yet … much depends on how we define that word, doesn’t it?

If by “working” we mean whether apologias for terrorism are changing hearts and minds among the public then, sure, the protests are failing. But if we mean whether they’re influencing American foreign policy in ways that favor Hamas, then they’ve actually worked shockingly well of late: On Wednesday, Joe Biden announced that he’ll withhold offensive weapons from Israel if it proceeds with its plan to invade Rafah.

The president and his party are reportedly in “panic mode” over anti-Israel sentiment on the left, the most visible expression of which has been the campus protests. “The longer they continue, and the worse that they get, the worse it’s going to be for the election overall,” one unnamed but nervous House Democrat interviewed by Axios said of the demonstrations. Fear of depressed Democratic turnout in November among pro-Palestinian voters, especially those who skew younger, has left the White House desperate for an exit ramp from Gaza. The looming incursion into Rafah has supplied one.

Biden now finds himself half-pregnant with respect to Israel’s war. And in politics, half-pregnancies rarely come to term successfully.

The strongest argument in defense of Biden’s attempt to short-circuit the Rafah invasion is that the risk of mass casualties is high. As diligent as Israeli forces might be in trying to keep civilians out of the crossfire, beginning with their evacuation of 100,000 Palestinians from the city, it’ll be urban combat in an environment that houses more than 1 million people.

Left-wing disaffection over Gaza may be more of a campfire politically than a forest fire at the moment, but the destruction a Rafah operation will bring will pour gasoline on it. Biden is managing the blaze as best he can by disclaiming American support for the carnage in advance.

Faulting him for cutting off weapons conditionally also raises this question: Should American support for allies always and everywhere be unconditional? “We stand by allies, we don’t second-guess them,” Mitt Romney tweeted with disgust at Biden’s decision, but that can’t be right. When we do an ally a favor, we’re surely entitled to second-guess the recipient if its national goals begin to diverge from our own. Ask Ronald Reagan.

It’s fine (and correct, I think) to conclude that U.S. interests do align with Israel’s with respect to Rafah, but the idea that there’s no red line an ally could cross that would justify us tempering our support is loopy. If hawks insist on an all-or-nothing commitment to conflicts involving our international partners, however long they might take and wherever they might lead, future presidents might reasonably surmise that “nothing” is the wiser option of the two.

There’s one more point in Biden’s favor. According to some polls, his skepticism of further Israeli military action reflects public opinion more accurately than Congress’ support for it does. When the people oppose what a U.S. ally is doing and the president’s policy mirrors that opposition, that’s democracy in action. It might be poor leadership, as the people are often foolish in their desires—just look at our presidential options this year—but Joe Biden answers to the American electorate, not to Bibi Netanyahu.

The strongest argument against Biden’s decision to cut Israel off is this: What, ultimately, does it accomplish?

Wars are fought to achieve political ends, not to frighten the enemy by breaking things. From the start, Israel’s mission has been to eliminate the terrorist entity responsible for the October 7 pogrom. And from the start, Joe Biden supported that goal—or so he said. Israeli forces now believe that achieving it requires an incursion into Rafah. Yet here the president is, trying to pull the plug.

He’s spoiling a mission he claimed to believe in, which makes him an unreliable partner. And which places him, rather awkwardly, in the position of using America’s global leverage to assure Hamas’ survival.

Many things will flow from that.

One is that Hamas’ patron, Iran, now has good reason to test the U.S.-Israel alliance with further provocations. If Hezbollah attacks from the north and the war widens, how resolute will a plainly anxious Joe Biden be about supporting Israel with an election approaching? Tehran must be wondering.

And if that conflict happens, it will certainly produce many more casualties and do more damage to Biden’s reelection chances than an American-backed incursion into Rafah would have. Regional war in the Middle East—now that’s a forest fire. 

Speaking of casualties, David Frum reminded readers on Thursday that the White House’s habit of holding back weapons from Ukraine for fear of escalation with Russia (only to ultimately give in and deliver them belatedly anyway in most cases) might have inadvertently prolonged the war by denying Kyiv the tools it needed for victory, assuring many more deaths in the process. Biden is now poised to make the same mistake with Israel. Do we care about minimizing Palestinian suffering or don’t we?

Maybe we don’t: The administration is reportedly weighing whether to block a shipment of Joint Direct Attack Munitions to Israel that would convert “dumb” bombs into precision-guided ones. Assuring that Israel’s airstrikes are less accurate than they might be is a funny way to go about trying to protect civilians caught in the crossfire in Rafah.

Another consequence of Biden’s policy has to do with the Americans being held in Gaza. “How is eliminating any strategic leverage on Israel’s behalf going to help get the hostages home?” journalist Josh Kraushaar wondered after Biden’s announcement on Wednesday. Israeli pressure on Hamas leaders holed up in Rafah might have forced the group into freeing its captives as part of a ceasefire deal. With U.S. support gone, that pressure is now diminished.

It’s in America’s interest to see the hostages returned. It’s also in America’s interest to see a major Iranian proxy and irritant to the regional peace process liquidated. And it’s in America’s interest to see the war in Gaza end as quickly and peacefully as possible. Thwarting the Rafah incursion cuts against all of those interests.

Even so, this foolishness might be worth it to the White House if it meaningfully improved Biden’s odds of a second term. But it won’t.

The good news for the president until yesterday was that he was on the right side of public opinion in many polls while the Hamas glampers on campus who’ve spent months hooting “Genocide Joe” at him were on the wrong one. As I alluded to earlier, public support for the protests currently splits 28-47, with opposition solid even among college graduates. Most polling shows that voters don’t care much about the war in Gaza either—including current college students, who rank it last relative to other major policy concerns. And insofar as voters do care about it, the looming Rafah invasion has produced numbers like this:

The phrasing of the question there is favorable to Israel, but the results suggest that Biden would be starting from a solid baseline of popular support in backing the incursion. 

By seeking to thwart it instead, the president will alienate many hawkish Trump-hating voters who were thinking of supporting him this year while doing little to win back the Biden-hating progressives who’ve turned on him over the war. (Although he’ll win back a few.) In fact, despite his best efforts to wash his hands of what’s coming in Rafah, I suspect he’ll be pummeled by the pro-Hamas left for it. If not for the last seven months of American support, after all, Israel would be in no position to undertake this attack.

All of which leaves Biden half-pregnant, too soft on “the Zionists” to suit his base and as of yesterday too hard on them to suit anyone else. Especially conservative hawks who’ve spent the last four months gamely voting for Nikki Haley in Republican primaries and whom the president, in theory, is courting to join his coalition this fall.

Our own Jonah Goldberg is already hearing ominous rumblings:

His tweet touched off a massive Twitter barroom brawl among Never Trumpers on Wednesday night that eventually sucked in Steve Hayes, The Bulwark’s Tim Miller, and a gazillion liberals. Many flagged Jonah’s post as supposed evidence that even the “really, really anti-Trump people” of the American right are craven partisan hacks desperate for an excuse to come home to MAGA.

It’s not true, of course. I dislike Biden’s new Israel policy but will vote for him anyway, as enabling a government takeover by a proto-fascist movement is a bit too steep a price for giving the IDF a slightly freer hand against Hamas. But not everyone who despises Trump views the choice on the ballot this fall as starkly as I do.

Jonah is right to worry that Reaganites, many of whom support Israel ardently, will find Biden’s vacillation on this conflict uniquely grievous given the moral stakes presented by October 7. No matter how angry leftists are with the president, their fear and loathing of his opponent and the GOP will weigh on them to suck it up and vote Democratic this fall. For Reaganites, however, that partisan pressure runs the other way due to their antipathy to the liberal agenda. They’ll need affirmative reasons to convince them to take the extraordinary step of crossing the aisle.

Biden’s steady support for Israel since October provided one. Now that he’s half-pregnant, it’s been badly compromised. And insofar as he’s letting electoral concerns guide his judgment on foreign policy, he’s guilty of dereliction of duty. A democratically elected leader needs to act in what he determines to be the best interests of his constituents even if those constituents disagree. If Biden believes that an invasion of Rafah is in America’s interest but opposes it simply because he fears it’ll be unpopular, he’s not doing the job he was elected to do.

All of that said, let me make a few points to the “really, really anti-Trump people” out there who are now considering turning to the dark side in November.

You’re kidding yourselves if you think you know what Trump will do on any issue (except immigration), and that very much includes Israel. Authoritarian populists with conspiracies on the brain historically have not been great friends to the Jewish people. Insofar as Israel policy matters to your vote, don’t bet heavily on a tribalist nationalist movement that craves political scapegoats remaining a staunch ally to Tel Aviv forever.

In fact, the guy at the top of that movement has a long habit of implying that American Jews should let a candidate’s position on Israel decide their vote. (He did it again on Thursday.) Encouraging the perception that Jewish citizens feel loyalty to a foreign state leads nowhere good; Trump might not mean it as a criticism but some of his allies eventually will.

Another point, which almost goes without saying: Even respectable members of the party he leads continue to go to great lengths to make excuses for his terrible behavior, which augurs badly if you’re inclined to believe that he’ll be held in check somehow in a second term. This pitiful reaction to Biden’s announcement on Wednesday reminded us of it again:

Republican commentators disingenuously echoed the point on television as well. But the problem with Trump’s conduct in his first impeachment wasn’t that he withheld foreign aid from an ally, as Mike Pence and Tom Cotton surely understand. It’s that he used the aid to try to extort that ally for something of personal value to him, namely, dirt on his election opponent. Quid pro quo, remember?

Biden isn’t demanding a quid pro quo from Netanyahu, he’s attempting to influence Israeli policy. It’s similar to Trump threatening that he’ll withdraw the U.S. from NATO if member nations don’t meet their obligations to contribute 2 percent of their GDP toward defense spending. That’s “extortion” of a sort but no one regards it as an impeachable offense because it’s aimed at procuring a policy shift, not a personal benefit to him.

It is true that Biden will—he thinks!—benefit personally by winning the election if he can stop the attack on Rafah, but it may well also be true that he believes averting the attack is good policy on the merits by sparing civilians from the Israel onslaught and America from the resulting international backlash. Similarly, if Trump had polling proving that Americans loved his policy of squeezing NATO members, the fact that he’d benefit electorally from it wouldn’t make it less legitimate. So long as the pressure he’s applying is geared toward influencing an ally’s policies in a way that arguably serves America rather than procuring the political equivalent of a fat envelope for himself, it’s not an abuse of power. Just a matter of debatable judgment.

If Biden asks Bibi for Mossad’s dossier on Trump in return for weapons, that would be an impeachable quid pro quo. (Not to mention an amazing read, I’m sure.)

Pence and Cotton know all of this but justifying Trump’s grotesque mafia-boss tactics is a duty of all Republicans even five years after the fact. Those who recoil from that but feel inclined to support him anyway in this moment out of understandable outrage at Biden’s Rafah policy should consider the many, many other examples we’ll be forced to endure over the next four years if he’s reelected. Israel is important. Not setting the constitutional order on fire is too.

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Nick Catoggio

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.