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How Biden's support for Israel could cost him re-election

'We won't forget': Has Biden's support for Israel lost him the Arab American vote?
8 min read
Washington, D.C.
09 November, 2023
In-depth: Arab and Muslim voters played a key role in securing a Democratic victory in 2020. But the US President's unfettered support for Israel's deadly war on Gaza has triggered widespread outrage that could risk the 2024 election.
Pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrate against the Biden administration. [Getty]

In the pivotal United States election of 2020, Arabs and Muslims were instrumental in getting out the vote for Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. 

Now, in November 2023, a month into Israel’s deadly war on Gaza, this small but growing bloc of American voters might not be as reliable for the Democratic Party as they were three years ago, with a recent poll showing Arab American support of Biden has dropped to 17 percent.

After Hamas's surprise attack on Israel on 7 October, in which more than 1,400 Israelis were killed, it was largely expected that the Biden administration would respond with firm support for Israel. 

However, as the days and weeks wore on and Israel's relentless bombing and stifling siege on Gaza continued, many Americans, particularly Arabs and Muslims, believe Biden should be doing much more to pressure the Israeli government to curb its attacks.

A spike in outrage over Gaza, a decline in support for Biden

Though there have been many episodes of Israeli violence towards Palestinians over the years, this one seems to have stirred an international public outcry unlike others. More than 10,000 Palestinians, including over 4,400 children, have been killed so far. 

"It was the heartache and the heartbreak, not just among Palestinians, but of people across the board. This is big. It hurts. This is something we've not seen before," James Zogby, a veteran pollster and founder of the Arab American Institute (AAI), told The New Arab (TNA).

Noting other conflicts in the region, such as Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its war with Lebanon in 2006, he said, "This one somehow seemed unique because of the way that people were reacting to it, the things people were saying, and the people making statements about what they were going to do in 2024."

It was this widespread condemnation of Israel's bombardment of Gaza pushed Zogby to conduct a poll to assess the sense of the community's frustration in numbers. Though he expected to see some drop in support, what he didn't expect was how much it had fallen.

Just 17 percent of Arab Americans polled said they would vote for Biden in 2024, down from 59 percent in 2020, a 42 percent drop.

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"I was very much surprised. I'd never seen a decline like that," Zogby said.

Emgage, a Muslim voting advocacy group, found an even starker drop in support, with just over 5 percent of Muslims voters saying they would vote for Biden, down from 80 percent in the previous election.

"We needed to put numbers to those sentiments. The data captured that feeling of betrayal," Mohamed Gula, national organising director for Emgage, told TNA.

He explained that this sense of betrayal comes after Muslims organised to get out the vote for Biden, making them feel like they were part of the political process. Unlike former President Donald Trump, who had enacted what was known as the Muslim ban, Biden gave the impression that he would address their concerns.

"It was like a friend or family member had betrayed you."

Sabiha Khan, a longtime Democratic voter in southern California, told TNA that she, along with her friends and family, will not be voting for Biden again. "He took us for granted," she said.

On 4 November, 300,000 people gathered in Washington for a pro-Palestine march, as public outrage grows over the Biden administrations support for Israel's war on Gaza. [Getty]

In swing states, Arab and Muslim votes are crucial

Though Arabs and Muslims constitute a relatively small bloc of voters - 3.5 million and 3.45 million respectively - in the state-by-state electoral college, their votes do have the potential to impact elections.

In Michigan, Trump won by 10,000 votes in 2016, and Biden beat him by 154,000 votes in 2020. There are 220,000 registered Muslim voters in the state.

One thing that significantly helped Biden in 2020 was the grassroots campaigning of Rashida Tlaib, whose congressional campaign brought out Arabs and Muslims to the polls in numbers that hadn't been seen before. In 2020, more than 80,000 Muslim voters cast their ballots in Michigan, four times as many as in 2016, according to Emgage.

But now, Tlaib has accused Biden of supporting genocide in Gaza, and has been censored by the House of Representatives for her comments on Israel. It’s unclear how, or even if, she will rally her constituents behind Biden and the Democratic Party in 2024. 

More on Israel's war on Gaza:
Will an ICC investigation hold Israel accountable in Gaza?
Why can't the United Nations agree to a ceasefire in Gaza?
The end of 'Mr. Security': How Netanyahu's self-styled image has been shattered

In Arizona, another key swing state, the current Democratic governor won by 17,000 votes. There are 50,000 registered Muslim voters.

"No matter how you spin it, these states are going to be key in 2024," said Gula. 

Until now, the alternative to Biden is Trump. No candidate in either party comes close in polls. Moreover, anyone who could be competitive in the coming months would likely have a similar approach to Israel and Gaza, given the country's united foreign policy.

Trump's policies towards Arabs and Muslims were notoriously draconian. He issued multiple travel bans for Muslim majority countries, which included dismantling much of the State Department's immigration infrastructure; repeatedly made anti-Muslim statements on social media; and moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

Most notably for the current moment, the Trump administration initiated the Abraham Accords, a set of normalisation treaties between Israel and multiple Arab states, which did not include the Palestinians in the process.

In 2020, Biden was seen by many Arabs and Muslims as the best alternative to Trump, despite his long record in the senate of voting for right-wing bills for Israel.

His presidential campaign featured an Arabic language page, he worked with the communities on policy promises, and he visited the Arab American hub of Dearborn, Michigan.

By contrast, Trump has ramped up his anti-Muslim rhetoric for his 2024 presidential campaign. His agenda includes expanding the Muslim ban, suspending the  refugee resettlement programme, sending immigration officers to "pro-jihadist" demonstrations, and expanding denaturalisations of "terrorists and immigrant cheats".

How serious is the threat to Biden?

The loss of entire voting blocs could spell disaster for Biden, who has already lost support from other groups, including the Black and Hispanic communities. Another at-risk demographic is young voters, who tend to vote on their values and ideals, rather than pragmatism. 

"The older voters, on election day, will hold their noses and vote for their party. With younger voters, this is a real problem," Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Centre, said.

When Zogby's poll was first released late last month, some analysts were quick to point out that Americans typically don't vote on foreign policy.

However, when it comes to Arab and Muslim voters, this argument underestimates how connected they feel to the country of origin.

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Many are immigrants or have parents or grandparents from the region. Moreover, Palestine, specifically Jerusalem, holds an important place in the cultures of Arabs and Muslims, for many making it just as important as domestic issues.

"For the Muslim community, it's their issue. It's attached to our religion historically," says Gula. 

"When Democratic strategists and candidates say there's a possibility Muslims and Arabs will forget, no they won't. It's an issue at the core of what we believe is important to us. There's a special place in the Muslim heart for Palestine."

Mirvette Judeh, a longtime Democratic activist based in southern California, who says she will not be voting for Biden, told TNA, "It's been devastating. It's been a clash between my American and Palestinian identity."

Her message to the Biden administration is blunt. "If you don't care about the lives lost, care about the position you've put the Democratic Party in."

A failure to win over Arab and Muslim voters that have been alienated by Biden's continued support for Israel could impact the Democratic Party's chances in the 2024 elections. [Getty]

Can Biden turn things around?

It's unclear if Biden still has the chance to win back voters, as Israel continues to indiscriminately bomb Gaza with no end in sight.

"I may say, generally, that Biden's numbers - and not to put too fine a point on it - suck. But they also sucked last year, and Democrats had a decent midterm," J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, explained to TNA.

Multiple polls of general voters have Biden at dangerously low numbers, with an approval rating of less than 40 percent. A recent poll shows Biden losing in key states in a hypothetical match-up with Trump.

"The good news for Democrats is that there's still a year to go - people may begin to view the election more as a choice between Biden and Trump than just a referendum on Biden," he said.

But for many Arab and Muslim voters, the damage is already done. It could take Biden a while to win back the trust of communities that supported him in what was widely seen as a crucial election.

While the message coming from the administration and strategists is that a year is enough time for voters to forget, Gula sees the inverse.

"The same way strategists are saying a year is a long time and feelings will de-escalate, I believe a year is a long time and they have enough time to solve the problem. The responsibility shouldn't be to the voters, but to the politicians," he said.

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews