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A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went into effect Thursday after both agreed to halt an 11-day exchange of attacks that left hundreds dead and sparked fears that the two parties could be headed for a full-scale war.
The agreement came one day after President Biden pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a “significant deescalation” of his country’s bombing campaign in Gaza, which killed more than 230 Palestinians. Until that point, Biden had taken a more deferential approach, at least in public, and repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks that killed a dozen Israelis — though media reports suggest he was more forceful in private calls with Netanyahu.
In a short address after the ceasefire was announced, Biden reiterated his support for Israel and said he would continue to pursue “quiet and relentless” diplomacy to prevent violence from reigniting. His nonconfrontational tone, in which he offered no criticism of America’s strongest Middle East ally, is consistent with the approach that’s been at the center of U.S.-Israel relations for decades.
Throughout the conflict, Biden faced pressure from a faction of the Democratic Party that has become increasingly skeptical of the deferential treatment Israel has historically gotten from the U.S. High-profile progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders and members of “the Squad” have called out what they see as human rights violations against the Palestinian people and sought to pare back pro-Israel policies — specifically the billions in military aid the U.S. sends each year. And the pushback isn’t limited to the left wing of the party. A number of relatively moderate Democratic senators called on Biden to be more aggressive in pursuing a ceasefire, even if that meant publicly going against Israel.
Why there’s debate
These vocal critiques from Democrats represent an unprecedented departure from the bipartisan support Israel has long enjoyed from the U.S. It’s unclear, however, whether this criticism will lead to substantive changes in American policy.
Some political analysts see reason to believe the U.S. could be primed to reevaluate its steadfast support of Israel. Polling suggests that growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause among Democratic lawmakers is matched by a similar shift in opinion in the broader public, especially younger Americans. Others say former President Donald Trump’s controversial embrace of Netanyahu made Israel policy a much more partisan issue than it had been in the past. That shift, coupled with widespread doubt that a two-state solution is possible, could mean the political headwinds that have informed the nonconfrontational treatment of Israel may have shifted, some experts say. Biden’s willingness to ramp up pressure on Netanyahu in private may also be a sign of changes in the relationship.
Skeptics argue that Biden’s actions in recent days show just how little the pressure from his party has influenced his decision making. He has reversed some of Trump’s Israel policies but has left some of the most controversial ones in place — most notably the decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. And while calling for a ceasefire is a step Trump almost certainly wouldn’t have taken, a number of media reports suggest the Biden administration is reluctant to spend its political capital on tackling the much more challenging — and potentially impossible — goal of brokering a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others point out that the emerging bloc of Israel critics is still too small to force Biden’s hand through legislation.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to the region in the coming days to discuss recovery efforts and help ensure that the ceasefire remains. Biden has pledged to quickly offer humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people and help Israel replenish its anti-missile defense system, the Iron Dome.
Public opinion has shifted enough to force real changes in U.S.-Israel policy
“If shifting American sentiment about our relationship with Israel is any indication, the gap between what the American government does for Israel — and to Palestinians — and what the American people think is fair and just has become a chasm that may well create openings for real political change.” — Sarah Leah Witson, American Prospect
The change is gradual, but it’s happening
“It is premature to suggest that the special treatment Israel receives in American politics and policy, and that has previously traversed Republican and Democratic administrations, is definitively over. Yet the dynamics are pushing in that direction and the signs of change are already visible — the question is how far and how fast those will move.” — U.S./Middle East Project president Daniel Levy to Guardian
Israel’s actions are becoming increasingly indefensible
“The changing political winds in Israel have made it easier for the American public to see what many Palestinians say was the reality all along. … Since so much of the Israeli government’s argument relies on painting the two nations’ bond as emerging from a shared set of liberal, democratic values, the deterioration of Israel’s image as a liberal bastion has had political consequences.” — Daniel Marans, HuffPost
Biden is allowing the left to lead him to disaster
“A rational person might see the demands for a cease-fire after Hamas has rained thousands and thousands of rockets upon Israel as insane. But it’s also politically predictable because Pelosi and other establishment Democrats are bending to a growing phenomenon in the Democratic Party: Increasing anti-Israeli influence among hard-left progressives. … The left is the tail wagging the Democratic dog.” — John Kass, Chicago Tribune
The left’s ability to influence Biden on domestic policy hasn’t translated to foreign affairs
“Part of the frustration for progressives is that they feel they've been able to nudge the president on other issues, such as climate change or racial justice, but not on this.” — Asma Khalid, NPR
Biden would be wise to maintain his current approach
“The White House withstood an avalanche of uninformed criticism over its behind-the-scenes role. Publicly bashing Israel or demanding an early cease-fire likely would have only prolonged the suffering in Gaza and the unconscionable attacks against Israeli civilians.” — Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
Biden already represents a major shift from the approach of the past four years
“Simply not being Trump represents a policy change in itself.” — Zachary B. Wolf, CNN
The change in sentiment is too small to force a revision of U.S. Israel policy
“The American chattering class’s growing sympathy for the Palestinians isn’t immaterial. And it could eventually be reflected in public policy. But for the moment, Israel is about as geopolitically secure as it has ever been.” — Eric Levitz, New York
Israel-Palestine simply isn’t a priority for Biden
“I think the Israeli-Palestinian issue just sucked up so much air in previous Democratic administrations that he’s really hesitant to allow that to happen again. We’ve got other equities in the Middle East other than Israel.” — Middle East analyst Mark Perry to New York Times
Years of pro-Palestinian rhetoric hasn’t affected the situation on the ground
“At some point, shouldn’t those public-relations victories and global messaging wins add up to something tangible? Israel and its enemies fight, Israel inflicts more damage on Hamas than Hamas does to Israel, we’re told that Israel has really stepped in it this time, and yet ... the situation remains the same.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review
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