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Leading From Behind
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Leading From Behind

At the top, support for Israel falters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Progressive hostility to Israel is a fact of political life.

The bodies of Hamas’ victims on October 7 of last year hadn’t cooled yet before that hostility began to express itself. So when Joe Biden resolved to back Israel in its counteroffensive in Gaza, he surely knew that doing so would end up costing him support on the far left.

He expected, I assume, that his policy would pay off by more than offsetting those losses with gains in the pro-Israel center. Nearly six months later, that hasn’t panned out for him:

Support for the counteroffensive is at minus-31 among independents and at minus-57 within Biden’s own party—and that was before the airstrike that killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza on Monday, an incident that increasingly feels like an inflection point for left-leaners who have been ambivalent about Israel’s operations. You know things have taken a turn when Obama administration alumni like Jon Favreau and Ben Rhodes are mocking the president publicly in the thick of a reelection campaign, aware that Donald Trump stands to benefit electorally:

José Andrés, the celebrity chef and founder of World Central Kitchen, accused Israel afterward of having targeted his staffers “deliberately.” The Israeli government dismissed that claim as “absurd” for good reason, as there are many costs and no obvious benefits to murdering relief workers when U.S. support for Israel is already underwater at 36-55 and slipping. But Andrés’ accusation seems to have captured the mood on the left as of this writing: Whatever benefit of the doubt mainstream Democrats and, to a lesser extent, independents had given Israel about its good intentions at the start of the war is evaporating.

Usually, one party’s crisis is the other party’s opportunity. But America has arrived at a strange moment in which the country is simultaneously experiencing a major political realignment, significant ideological churn within its two major factions, and an endless, grinding 50-50 electoral stalemate. All of which could make any bold turn on policy electorally fatal.

And that’s left both parties’ presidential nominees without the faintest idea of what to do about this issue.

From the start of the war, Biden’s strategy for managing discontent among his base over Israel has been to echo their discontent rhetorically while standing firm on policy. The more transparent that ploy has become, the more hollow it’s begun to ring to figures like Favreau and Rhodes. For all the solemn expressions of White House outrage over civilian casualties in Gaza, they point out, the alleged outrage never actually leads to anything.

The most amusing example to date came on Tuesday, when the president himself told an audience of Muslim activists that the first lady had urged him with respect to Israel’s counteroffensive to “stop it, stop it now.” The voices of dissent had reached all the way to the presidential bedroom, he wanted them to know.

What he didn’t mention, it seems, is that he won’t be taking her advice.

Joe Biden is an earnest supporter of Israel, very much in line with the position of most voters yet increasingly far removed from his party’s base of young Palestinian sympathizers. Somehow he needs to square that circle, and the best he and other top Democrats can think to do with opinion about Israel’s operations trending negative is to quietly keep supporting the war while seeming darned mad about it. Which leaves no one happy.

But what’s the alternative?

If he had refused to back Israel after October 7, most Americans would have been justly outraged. Trump would have hung his weakness in the face of terrorism around his neck in the general election. But once Biden resolved to support the Israeli effort, he was stuck riding it out to the bitter end. It would be foolish for him to pull the plug on U.S. aid before the operation is finished, after all, as in that case he’d have sustained major political damage at home without helping Israel actually achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas.

Politically, then, he’s left trying to hit a moving target driven by a drift toward the Palestinians over time among Democrats, growing unrest among fickle but generally pro-Israel centrists as the war drags on, an age gap that’s led younger voters in both parties to feel differently about the parties to this conflict than their elders, and the knowledge that his ongoing support for Israel is unlikely to win him many Republican votes in a hyper-polarized era. He can’t be against the war—Hamas’ savagery left no room morally for that—but he can’t safely be for it either.

So he’s stuck trying to be both.

It resembles his Ukraine policy, ironically. There, too, Biden has been eager to support an ally’s right of self-defense while remaining chronically reluctant to supply the advanced weapons the Ukrainians need to effectively repel Russia’s invasion. He’s willing to help, but not so much that it might antagonize Moscow into a regional escalation. So he’s offered just enough armaments to ensure a stalemate.

He wants Ukraine to win, he just … doesn’t want Russia to lose. At least not so badly that the Russians end up getting mad about it.

The common thread for Biden in both conflicts, I suspect, is a sense of duty to come to the aid of a pro-Western power facing an illiberal eliminationist enemy. How he performs that duty is subject to change (especially rhetorically) as political circumstances require, but that there is a duty is beyond question. For his base, however, there’s no thread at all. Ukraine merits support because it’s the weaker party to the conflict, because it’s suffered horrendous civilian casualties from a campaign of military terror, and because it’s being pulverized to fulfill the colonialist fantasies of the enemy’s nefarious authoritarian leader—a figure whom the American left has long despised.

None of that is true for the Israelis. Just the opposite: It’s true of the Palestinians, at least according to how progressives balance the moral equities. Which leaves old-school liberal Joe Biden naturally awkward and uneasy in trying to navigate the politics of the conflict in Gaza.

One might think his repeated hedging on Israel would lead his opponent to rant about the lack of “strength” being displayed right now by the White House, as he’s wont to do. But one would be wrong.

Donald Trump does prize “strength,” of course. But what he prizes above all things is the welfare of Donald Trump.

He’s seen the polling, surely. He’s no doubt heard that many Arab Americans in the important battleground state of Michigan are vowing to punish Biden at the polls for having supported Israel. And he’s presumably aware that elements of his base are distinctly less enthusiastic about the Jewish state than Republicans have traditionally been. When you dine with the likes of Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, that subject is bound to come up, no?

There’s an electoral advantage to be gained potentially from opposing Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza. Trump knows it.

He also must realize that an “America First” ethos doesn’t sit easily alongside endless support for Israel. If the United States should properly worry about the state of its own borders before it worries about Ukraine’s, as nationalists are forever insisting, it’s not clear why that logic doesn’t also apply to Israel’s conflict. And perhaps, for some, it does:

In short, there’s electoral pressure from the center and ideological pressure from the isolationist right nudging Trump toward a more ambivalent position on the Gaza counteroffensive.

There’s good reason to think he might be vulnerable to that pressure, too. While Trump likes to boast about everything he did for the Jewish state as president, there are precious few policy matters outside of immigration about which he feels passionately enough to stand firm. “Trump’s support for Israel in the first term is not guaranteed in the second term,” John Bolton, his former national security advisor, warned recently. “Trump’s positions are made on the basis of what’s good for Donald Trump, not on some coherent theory of national security.”

It should come as no surprise then that he has, in fact, taken a less forgiving view of Israel’s Gaza campaign than we might expect from a right-wing strongman. “You have to finish up your war. … You have to get it done. We have to get to peace,” he told an Israeli media outlet last month. “We can’t have this going on. And I will say, Israel has to be very careful because you’re losing a lot of the world, you’re losing a lot of support.”

Afterward, the correspondent for that media outlet accused Trump of having “effectively bypassed Biden from the left” on the war.

On Thursday Trump appeared for a friendly interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt and was asked again repeatedly to clarify his support for Israel. No dice.

Obsessed with image and totally vacuous on policy specifics: That’s him all over. But the quote communicates what it was designed to communicate, which is that his support for the war isn’t unconditional—and, by implication, that his supporters within the Republican Party needn’t treat their own support for Israel’s counteroffensive as unconditional either.

I don’t think there’s any ideological principle or moral commitment obliging him to align himself with Israel the way there is for Biden. That’s not how Trump’s mind operates. Left to his own devices, I suspect he’d prefer to align himself with the American majority in opposing the military operation, especially given his well-known beef with Israel’s leader.

His problem is that Republican support for the mission is still holding steady-ish at a solid 64 percent, and even a leader with a following as cultish as Trump’s doesn’t like to be on the wrong side of a number like that among his own base. Certainly, some of his fans would reconsider their own position on Gaza if their hero reconsidered his, but not all. Some Republicans feel a religious duty to support the Jewish state; some do so out of the same sense of Western allyship that I believe drives Biden; and some instinctively recoil at the thought of American neutrality in a tribal conflict involving an Islamic movement as barbaric as Hamas.

So taking a firm position on the matter ends up being as politically fraught for Trump as it is for Biden—even though they’re opposites in substance. If the president is a pro-Israel hawk trying to make amends to unhappy swing voters and a furious left-wing base, Trump is a transactional dove keen to woo those unhappy swing voters but fearful of alienating the pro-Israel hawks on his own side.

Like Biden, he’s trying to hit a difficult political target by somehow indulging nationalists’ skepticism of Israel without indulging it so much as to alienate evangelicals. He wants to show the persuadable center that he shares their discomfort over the Gaza operation but doesn’t want to show so much discomfort as to call his signature trait, “strength,” into question. He may, frankly, be flummoxed in trying to discern which direction right-wing populists want to go on the conflict, as different strains view Israel very differently.

That leaves him in roughly the same place politically as the president is, an uncommon development on policy in modern America. They both support the war, they’re both outwardly mortified by what it’s become, and neither seems to have anything remotely resembling a constructive proposal for how to square those two positions. They’re leading their parties from behind, trying to be all things to all people on a matter of grave international import because there’s too much uncertainty about how the many constituencies that are in political flux in this election might react.

How’s that for American leadership?

All of this makes me nervous about the prospects of long-term support for Israel in the United States.

The strongest argument that that support will abide in some form is the reality of partisan polarization. As one side turns more sharply for or against a position, the other tends to discover virtue in turning in the opposite direction. If I had told you 10 years ago that Republican resolve in containing Russia would shrink considerably over the next decade, you might have panicked and anticipated a total collapse in public support for NATO.

But you would have been wrong. Three cheers for polarization!

Opinion on Israel could work the same way. As the left grows more fervent in its opposition, motivated reasoning might lead the right toward a new appreciation of the virtues of the Jewish state.

But there are reasons to doubt.

For one thing, public opinion on foreign nations may be less susceptible to polarization than opinion about domestic issues is. China’s favorability in the United States stands at 20-77, Russia’s at 8-86. American opinion on Israel had traditionally been bipartisan as well—but not anymore. Among Democrats, the net advantage in sympathy for Israelis relative to the Palestinians has shifted no less than 41 points since 2016.

That’s a bad trend. And given the age dynamics on this subject, it’s likely to get worse.

Democrats are much further along in their shift toward the Palestinians, but note that young Republicans also display markedly less sympathy for Israelis relative to the other side than their elders do. Partly that must be due to generational memory: Both the Holocaust and the numerous wars of extermination waged against the state of Israel surely inform the opinions of older Americans to a degree that isn’t true of younger ones.

But the “America First” ethos on which young populist right-wingers have been weaned since 2016 is probably also influencing the shift. What happens when that generation matures into political leadership while their counterparts on the left, weaned on cant about “settler colonialism,” take charge on the other side?

Things could get dark.

With Biden and Trump each seeking political advantage by hedging their electoral bets on Israel, the current counteroffensive could end up being a formative event that shapes the next generation’s antipathy toward the Jewish state durably. Especially if they’re predisposed to it.

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.