Joe Biden is facing a split in his own party over the conflict in Gaza, as progressive Democrats put pressure on the president to take a tougher stance on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Democratic members of Congress have been critical of the Biden administration’s defence of Israel, which reflects decades of American foreign policy orthodoxy but is increasingly at odds with the opinion of the party’s grassroots.
As violence in the region continued over the weekend, Democrats fought each other in public over how the US should respond.
Bernie Sanders, the leftwing senator from Vermont, said on Sunday: “When you have the United States of America, putting almost $4bn a year into Israel, we have the right to demand that they respect the human rights of all people, including the Palestinians.”
He told the news channel MSNBC: “What we need now is an even-handed policy, which protects the security of Israel — they have a right to live in peace and security without terrorist attacks — but the people in the Palestinian territories also have the right to live in peace and dignity.”
Sanders’ comments came a day after Biden spoke to both Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian authority, following days of fighting.
The White House said the US president told Abbas that Hamas needed to stop firing rockets into Israel, while to Netanyahu he “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself”.
On Sunday, the death toll in Gaza stood at 192, including 92 women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Israel has reported 10 dead from the Hamas attacks, including two children.
The president’s tone reflects his long-term support for Israel. But it has triggered anger among American Muslim groups, several of which boycotted a White House virtual event on Sunday to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr.
And it has also put him at odds with a new generation of progressives within his party. While he has been able to find common cause with younger, more leftwing members of his party on a host of domestic issues, such as the economy, infrastructure and climate change, he is finding it harder to do so on foreign policy matters.
Several members of Congress criticised the administration’s position during an impassioned debate in the House of Representatives last Thursday.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the representative from New York, said during that debate: “The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to defend itself, and this is a sentiment that’s echoed across this body. But do Palestinians have a right to survive?”
Other Democrats have also been more willing than in the past to criticise Israel. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate foreign relations committee and a vocal supporter of Israel, said in a statement on Saturday he was “deeply troubled” by some of Israel’s military actions.
Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama, said it “feels increasingly untenable for the US to see this loss of civilian life in Gaza — including so many children — and not publicly call for a ceasefire”.
But many more established members of Congress have maintained their traditional support for Israel. Ted Deutch, the three-term representative from Florida, said during last week’s debate: “If I am asked to choose between a terrorist organisation and our democratically, I will stand with Israel.”
The splits reflect shifting opinions within the party over US policies in the region. In 2008, only 33 per cent of Democrats thought the US should put pressure on the Israelis to make compromises rather than the Palestinians, according to polling by Gallup. That figure is now 53 per cent.
Meanwhile, many of those who campaigned last year for greater racial equality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have found common cause with Palestinians.
A statement posted by the Black Lives Matter movement to Instagram last week said: “One cannot advocate for racial equality, LGBT & women’s rights, condemn corrupt & abusive regimes and other injustices yet choose to ignore the Palestinian oppression. It does not add up.”
Democratic infighting continued over the weekend, as Ritchie Torres and Jamaal Bowman, both Democratic members of Congress representing neighbouring parts of New York, argued on Twitter.
Last week Torres spoke in defence of Israel and accused his critics of forming an “overbearing Twitter mob” against him. On Sunday Bowman tweeted: “My brother Ritchie, this is not about a Twitter mob. This is about justice, humanity, and equality.”
Torres responded: “I have deep respect for you as a colleague. But it alarms me when those on Twitter post images that wipe Israel off the map, as one elected official did recently.”
Republicans have been keen to play up Democratic divisions over Israel, especially given they are facing their own splits over the future of the party in the wake of Liz Cheney’s ousting from its Congressional leadership.
Jason Miller, an adviser to the former president Donald Trump, tweeted a piece detailing Democratic divides over Israel, saying: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is exposing a rift among Democrats.”