Violence in Gaza marks a shift in American politics

For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have stood by Israel, almost unconditionally, insisting the country has a right to defend itself.

President Biden did that throughout the recent conflict as Hamas militants fired thousands of rockets into Israel. Now, Biden has pledged to help replenish Israel’s air defense system while promising humanitarian aid to Gaza, which was pounded by fierce Israeli airstrikes before a cease-fire took effect early Friday.

But this latest violence marked a shift in the American political debate over Israel. The criticism from the left was louder than in the past, with progressives pressuring Biden to speak up forcefully in support of Palestinians, who saw a far greater civilian death toll in recent days.

This shift is tied to two main factors: the growing power of racial justice movements in the United States and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of the American right wing in recent years.

Those forces sparked the biggest public disagreement yet between Biden and the progressive wing of his party. To some, news of a cease-fire was welcome but insufficient; they want the Democratic Party to rethink its relationship fundamentally with Israel.

“This cease-fire does not change the fact that so many have died and the U.S. has been complicit in this violence,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, said in a statement. “Biden and Congress can’t call for a cease-fire while continuing to hand over the very weapons responsible for trapping and killing innocent children.”

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The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate change organization, was one of 140 progressive groups that signed a statement last week calling for the Biden administration to condemn the Israeli government’s plans to “forcibly displace Palestinians.”

“It’s just simply a fact that there was never this kind of pressure vocally from the left on issues related to Israel during the Obama years,” said Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration.

“There’s now just a much wider spectrum of opinion in the party,” he added. “And therefore it’s going to be harder to just stick to the old line of essentially unquestioned support for the policies of the Israeli government.”

The Biden administration knew its decision to not call for an immediate cease-fire would receive tremendous pressure from progressives, but it felt that a more behind-the-scenes approach would avoid the kind of protracted war the world witnessed in 2014.

A number of current White House officials were working in the Obama administration during the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they wanted a different approach this time.