Democrats’ Unity Starts Cracking on Israel-Gaza Conflict

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Hamas attack in Israel at the White House last week, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Five Democratic House members on Monday introduced a measure calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. When President Biden spoke at an LGBTQ+ event on Saturday, an attendee interrupted to shout, “Let Gaza live! Cease-fire now!” And when Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, held a briefing for Jewish lawmakers recently, some conveyed their concerns about humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

A growing number of Democrats is pushing the White House to take stronger action to restrain Israel’s response to the recent Hamas attack as conditions in Gaza worsen and as Israel, which is mounting a siege of the territory, is expected to imminently launch a blistering ground invasion that it says is an effort to end Hamas.

Democrats have been almost entirely unified in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks, in which Palestinian gunmen from Hamas hunted civilians in their homes and cars, shot people indiscriminately, and took scores of hostages, including some Americans, into Gaza. The vast majority of the party has remained steadfastly behind Israel as it launches its retaliatory campaign for the attacks, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis.

But a small yet growing number of Democrats have begun urging the Biden administration to do more to encourage Israel to limit civilian casualties in its counterattack and ensure that innocent Palestinians are able to receive basic needs and humanitarian assistance. The shifting dynamic could create political and diplomatic complications for Biden as he contemplates a visit to Israel in the near future.

Biden in recent days has aimed to strike a delicate balance between Israel’s right to respond to a devastating event and the need to draw a distinction between Hamas and ordinary Palestinians. On Sunday he named a special envoy for Middle East humanitarian issues, and the White House has begun emphasizing its work to ensure that humanitarian aid can flow through Gaza and that Palestinian civilians can flee areas Israel is targeting.

This is not the first time Biden’s ironclad support of Israel has put him at odds with the more liberal wing of his party, as Democrats have grown increasingly willing to challenge Israel as its government has become more right-wing. Some Democrats have raised concerns or outright opposition to U.S. military support to Israel, pointing to its aggressive development of settlements in the occupied West Bank and its years-long punishing blockade of Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also formed the most far-right government in Israel’s history, though that has been replaced since the attacks by a unity government that includes centrist parties.

On Monday, five House Democrats – Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Cori Bush (Mo.), André Carson (Ind.), Summer L. Lee (Pa.) and Delia C. Ramirez (Ill.) – introduced a resolution urging the administration to “call for an immediate de-escalation and ceasefire in Israel and occupied Palestine, to send humanitarian aid and assistance to Gaza, and to save as many lives as possible.”

Eight other progressive Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.), quickly signed on.

Omar over the weekend retweeted a cartoon posted by Yanis Varoufakis, a former Greek finance minister, on X – formerly known as Twitter – that depicts Biden telling Netanyahu, “We support Israel’s right to defend itself with any war crime of its choice.”

That came after a letter Friday from 55 House Democrats who, while condemning “Hamas’s shocking and horrifying terrorist attack on Israel,” urged Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “take all due measures to limit harm to innocent civilians” in Gaza. That letter did not advocate for a cease-fire.

More than 2,700 Palestinians have been killed as Israel responds to the Hamas incursion by launching aerial attacks on Gaza and imposing a siege on the embattled enclave of 2 million densely packed people. Israeli officials also have urged more than 1 million Palestinians living in the northern section of Gaza to leave before Israel mounts its ground invasion, a demand that many diplomats consider impossible.

U.N. officials and human rights groups have condemned these tactics, saying some of them violate international law and stressing that Hamas is not representative of Palestinian civilians. However, the fury in Israel over the assault has prompted widespread support in that country for a fierce response, leaving the situation tense and unpredictable.

Biden has said Israel has a duty to respond to the attacks, which he has called as consequential as the Holocaust, but he seemed to impose limits when he said during a television interview airing Sunday that Israel reoccupying Gaza would be “a big mistake.” Israel captured the Gaza Strip, along with the West Bank, in the 1967 war, but it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leading to a Hamas takeover of the territory two years later.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), one of four Democrats who took the lead in crafting the letter signed by 55 lawmakers, said Biden needs to convey to Israeli leaders that causing devastation in Gaza would not offset the terror wreaked on Israelis.

“This is a special moment where we would really encourage the Biden administration to weigh in with Netanyahu and say that we don’t want to have an even greater humanitarian crisis right now,” Schakowsky, who represents a district in Chicago and its northern suburbs with a significant Jewish population, said Friday. “We’re very worried about that.”

Democrats said they are open to Biden delivering such a message in public or in private.

“I know exactly how the Biden administration operates,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former Congressional Progressive Caucus chairman who also played a major role in pulling together the letter. “You’re probably never going to hear it out loud, but he’ll say it in the private conversations he has with Israel.”

Biden and his top aides have hinted in recent days that they are sending such signals.

A White House summary of Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu on Saturday said that Biden reiterated unwavering support for Israel but also that the two leaders discussed U.S. coordination with the United Nations, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Israel and other countries to ensure innocent civilians have access to water, food and medical care. “President Biden affirmed his support for all efforts to protect civilians,” the readout said.

The White House also released a summary of a call Biden held with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, stating that Biden provided Abbas his “full support” in efforts to bring humanitarian assistance to Palestinian civilians.

Biden and his top aides are focused on preventing the conflict from escalating into a broader regional conflagration and have repeatedly warned other actors, such as Iran, not to get involved. They are also concerned that anger in Arab countries whose citizens are highly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause could set off such a conflict, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.

Officials have engaged in aggressive diplomatic efforts in the region as Blinken, for instance, has visited seven countries in recent days.

“They know an Israeli ground incursion that has really high casualties could inflame not just the situation among Palestinians but in the broader region,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute. “There’s a genuine concern that the threat of Hamas needs to be eliminated . . . but at the same time, how do you make sure that innocent Palestinians aren’t targeted?”

Several liberal lawmakers have faced pressure from outside groups not to call for restraint or a cease-fire on Israel’s part, according to one person familiar with the communications, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy organization that supports a two-state solution, said it would not endorse Democrats who refused to back a congressional resolution calling for lawmakers to stand “with Israel as it defends itself against the barbaric war launched by Hamas and other terrorists,” as first reported by the Intercept.

So far, only 13 House Democrats have not signed on to the resolution, which was introduced by Foreign Affairs Committee head Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and top Democrat Gregory W. Meeks (N.Y.). All Republicans have supported it.

A group of former J Street staffers condemned the organization’s effort, writing in a letter published Sunday that J Street should return to its founding goal of seeking pro-peace solutions and de-escalation. “J Street was founded to push for diplomatic solutions over military solutions – which time and again endanger both Israeli and Palestinian lives,” the former staffers wrote in the letter. “This move represents an abject and disappointing failure of that mission.”

The conflict has inflamed tensions in more direct ways as well. Capitol Police last week had a meeting with nine progressive Democrats, including Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Bush, about their safety. A Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss security issues, said the lawmakers are receiving significantly more threats than they have in the past. The meeting was put together by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.).

A recent State Department memo, first published by HuffPost and confirmed by The Washington Post, warned U.S. diplomats against using the phrases “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm,” saying the words did not comport with U.S. policy, which recognizes Israel’s right to mount a military operation in Gaza in response to the attacks.

On Monday, a coalition of more than 60 interfaith and nongovernmental organizations – including Christian, Arab, Muslim and Jewish groups – called for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. The organizations pushed policymakers to call for a cease-fire, prioritize the protection of all civilians, seek an entryway for humanitarian aid into Gaza, pursue the release of hostages and urge all parties to respect humanitarian law.

Although Biden is facing criticism from several progressives, others have praised his handling of the situation.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a Congressional Progressive Caucus member, did not sign the letter to Biden and Blinken. He said that he did not disagree with its sentiments, but that he wished it had included “a long paragraph” on what Israel has done to protect civilians in Gaza.

“The last 10 days have shown us why we elected Joe Biden president of the United States,” Sherman said. “I think he’s saying the right things and doing the right things.”