Biden attempts 'balance' on Middle East as protests hit State of the Union

Biden attempts 'balance' on Middle East as protests hit State of the Union
In Biden's State of the Union speech, Biden emphasised his continued support for Israel while acknowledging the humanitarian crisis of Palestinians in Gaza.
3 min read
Washington, DC
08 March, 2024
Biden delivers the State of the Union address amid Gaza ceasefire protests. [Getty]

In what could be a critical moment for Joe Biden in his re-election campaign, the US president attempted in his annual State of the Union address to please his traditional base of older voters who generally see Israel as an important democratic ally in the Middle East, while also trying to appeal to a growing discontented constituency who oppose his support for Israel's war in Gaza.

Even before Biden started his speech, as he was heading through Capitol Hill on his way to deliver the speech, his motorcade was disrupted by a coalition of hundreds of activists demanding a ceasefire in Gaza.

"As Jews, we understand all too well the imperative to do everything possible to try to stop a genocide," Jay Saper, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, who took part in the protest, told The New Arab.

"We are inspired by courageous Palestinian leaders taking bold action and honoured to join alongside in calling on the president to support a permanent ceasefire and end all military funding to Israel."

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This year's State of the Union speech fell on 7 March, the five-month mark of the surprise attack led by Hamas on within and around the "Gaza envelope", which killed around 1,200 Israelis. Israel's war on Gaza has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians so far, mostly women and children. Multiple human rights groups, world leaders and scholars have described Israel's actions as genocide.

Biden started his State of the Union speech by emphasising the importance of supporting Ukraine's military against Russia. An emergency funding bill for US$95 billion, mainly for Ukraine that has been held up for months in Congress also includes around US$14 billion for Israel.

The president's push to send more military aid to Israel comes as the US organising airdrops and sea shipments of humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, an enclave where the majority of the population is displaced, the healthcare system has collapsed, and reports of deaths from malnutrition and dehydration are growing by the day.

"There's really no question that he generally sides with Israel, but he did talk about the need to protect civilians in Gaza," J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told The New Arab.

"In his position, that's probably as good a balance as he reasonably can do in his shoes. It kind of sucks. We know that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is no fan of Biden. It's weird that he's having to work with someone who opposes his election," he said.

"I did wonder, when he was talking about calling for a ceasefire and how Israel needs to be mindful of civilians, if he was thinking about those protesters," he said.

The speech was generally well received by the Democrats in attendance, who frequently stood up to applaud the president's statements. One of the few times that Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson stood to applaud was when Biden emphasised the importance of US support for Israel.

Biden wrapped up his speech by alluding to the American dream and emphasising the importance of living up to the country's ideals. He also addressed the growing concern over his age, as he joked about what it was like when he was considered too young to serve in the US Senate.

The Republican rebuttal of the State of the Union was given by Senator Katie Britt of Alabama, who discussed the danger posed to American families by migrants.

With the two parties' nominees essentially decided, following Nikki Haley's withdrawal this week, which cleared the path for former President Donald Trump, the next eight months will be focused on the general election between two historically unpopular candidates.