How Israel's war on Gaza could determine the US elections

How Israel's war on Gaza could determine the US elections
Biden's failure to reign in Israel is costing him votes as he faces Trump. Richard Silverstein asks: could his foreign policy in Gaza decide the election?
6 min read
03 Apr, 2024
It is almost unheard of for Americans to determine their vote based a foreign policy issue, but many are refusing to vote for Biden due to his support for Israel, writes Richard Silverstein. [Getty]

No US foreign policy issue in recent memory has aroused as much anger and divisiveness among the American public as Israel’s war on Gaza.

The war has not just pit Democrats against Republicans but also progressive against moderates and conservative, pro-Palestine supporters again pro-Israel supporters, free speech advocates and even Biden against Netanyahu.

The struggle is fought in Congress, on the campaign trail, on major campuses throughout the country, in corporate suites, and on the streets. It even threatens the defeat of Biden in the 2024 election.

The pro-Israel lobby has fueled this division, planning to spend $100 million to defeat progressive Democratic candidates who support a Gaza ceasefire. Almost all the campaign donations come from pro-Israel billionaire Republicans, most of whom are Jewish as well.

"The struggle is fought in Congress, on the campaign trail, on major campuses throughout the country, in corporate suites, and on the streets"

A sign of the shifting sands was a recent speech by Senator Chuck Schumer, Senate Democratic leader and the highest ranking Jewish elected official in the country, that called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a major obstacle to peace.” Schumer also called for new elections in Israel, which Netanyahu would almost certainly lose.

This was an unprecedented intervention in Israel’s internal political process. He even expressed “sympathy for the idealism of young people” supporting a one-state solution. Schumer made this public break with the Israeli leader despite nearly $2-million in campaign donations from pro-Israel donors since 1990.

His shift represents a wider reckoning taking place across the USA, one that could have a significant impact at the ballot box.

A growing rift between Biden and Netanyahu

Despite opposition from President Biden, Netanyahu has approved plans for the invasion of Rafah, where about 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering. A ground invasion could result in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

Vice president Harris warned that if Israel invades Rafah there could be "consequences." But Netanyahu appears prepared to defy the orders of his closest ally.

If Netanyahu invades, then the US will appear impotent. This will significantly impede its ability to influence Israel in the future, and betray weakness to regional rivals like Iran and allies like Saudi Arabia.

This is not the only recent sign of a fracture between the US and Israel. The UN Security Council approved a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire after the US abstained, finally holding back from using the veto power it has used to block previous resolutions.

However, the US UN ambassador declared shortly after  that it was a “non-binding” resolution, implying the US would veto any further attempts to enforce it.

Nonetheless, this is a rebuke to Israel, as Netanyahu had demanded Biden veto the resolution. When Biden didn’t, Netanyahu cancelled a visit of Israeli security and intelligence officials to Washington.

This fit of pique has driven an even deeper wedge into the US-Israel relationship.

From a foreign policy perspective, the 75-year “special relationship” between Israel and the US, and Biden’s unwavering support for Israel’s war on Gaza, has damaged US standing in the region.

The US case for Arab states to normalise relations to Israel has been undermined. Before 7th October, it was rumoured that Saudi Arabia was on the verge of joining the Abraham Accords. But they have retreated until a Palestinian state is established, which Netanyahu has sworn not to do.

Iran and its regional allies - Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraqi Shia militias - have attacked Israeli forces in northern Israel, and US personnel in Syria, killing several soldiers. Americans do not want their soldiers dying to protect Israel.

As the US sides with Israel, Iran's Axis of Resistance gains credibility as the sole force willing to confront Israel and its US ally. Iran, for its part, needs only to sit back and watch its rivals fritter away whatever regional credibility they had.

"President Biden seems unable or unwilling to articulate a coherent American response to the Gaza war"

Weaponising anti-Semitism

In the battle over narrative, Israel’s supporters and the pro-Israel lobby have exploited anti-Semitism to delegitimise and smear any pro-Palestine solidarity. They have gone after phrases such as “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free” and accused all Palestine allies of supporting Hamas.

Accusations like these serve one primary function: to parry widespread charges that Israel is engaged in genocide against the Palestinian people of Gaza and distract from its crimes.

Israel and its allies counter criticism of Israel by turning the criticism right on its head, for example by attacking for its purported genocidal rhetoric of ‘from the river to the sea’.

Creating this confusion is precisely the intent of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda).

Anti-Semitism has also found its way into the US election. It may be hard to imagine a more pro-Israel president than Biden, but Trump is certainly trying.

Trump recently drew criticism when he claimed that Jews who vote against him and “hate their religion” and everything about Israel. This reinforces the "dual loyalty" claim that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than the US. It is blatantly anti-Semitic and provokes attacks like the Tree of Life and Poway synagogue attacks.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner threw another bombshell into the domestic debate over Gaza, advocating expelling its 2.3 million inhabitants to a “bulldozed” open space in the Negev desert. After that, he said Gaza should be "cleaned up."

He added that its "waterfront" would be a valuable development asset. Kushner's statements constitute the most explicit calls for ethnic cleansing by a prominent US political figure, who will seek to implement it should his father-in-law become president.


Biden, a deer in headlights

President Biden seems unable or unwilling to articulate a coherent American response to the Gaza war. This failure is dragging him down in the polls and primaries, as more and more voters refuse to vote for him.

As Biden stews over Netanyahu, just 27% of voters approve of his support of Israel in the war. If he loses the election, it will be the first time a president has lost due to opposition to Israel-Palestine policy.

In fact, it is almost unheard of for Americans to determine their vote based a foreign policy issue.

The president seems unwilling to challenge Israel. Unwilling to stop billions in armament exports. Unwilling to support UNRWA’s effort to stave off famine. Unwilling to force Israel to permit humanitarian aid into Gaza.

"It is almost unheard of for Americans to determine their vote based a foreign policy issue"

A new paradigm is emerging in US-Israel relations. Members of Congress have become emboldened and are no longer cowed by the pro-Israel lobby. Increasingly, they are urging a more critical approach.

They are opposing the pro-Israel Middle East policy which prevailed for decades. They oppose the prior consensus that US and Israeli interests are the same. Instead they want a reset, calibrating relations based on US interests alone.

This will not only impact bilateral relations, but it will also cast Israel into dangerous seas without its biggest ally and may force it to confront the world alone.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.

Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.