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The Memo: Biden faces new moment of truth as Israel presses in on Rafah

President Biden is facing a new moment of truth in the Middle East as Israel asserts it will press ahead with an invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

Such an operation will come as American disapproval of Israel’s actions is hitting unprecedented levels.

A new Gallup poll last week demonstrated just how much the traditional American support for Israel has been eroded, as the death toll in Gaza has climbed to around 32,000 in less than six months. 

The Israeli assault on Gaza is in reprisal for the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas in Israel that killed more than 1,100 people.

The Gallup poll showed that, by almost 20 points, more Americans now disapprove of Israel’s military actions in Gaza. 

Fifty-five percent of all Americas disapprove, while just 36 percent approve. Back in November, a poll from the same organization found a narrow majority of Americans approving of Israel’s actions, 50 percent to 45 percent.

The roar of dissent from Democratic voters has become even louder. Three-in-four Democrats now disapprove of Israel’s actions, according to the Gallup poll, while only 18 percent approve. Seven percent expressed no opinion.

The pollsters also noted that Biden’s conduct pertaining to the conflict in Gaza was “the lowest among five issues tested in the survey.” They said this was “because far fewer Democrats (47 percent) approve of how he is handling the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians than approve of his handling of the economy, the environment, energy policy and foreign affairs, broadly.”

The poll is the latest snapshot in a series of political moments that have demonstrated growing Democratic anger with the actions taken by the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a government widely seen as the most right-wing in his nation’s 76-year history.

In November, a huge rally in solidarity with Gaza was claimed by organizers to be the largest pro-Palestinian demonstration in U.S. history. Later the same month, pro-Palestinian protestors and police clashed at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

In February, more than 100,000 people voted “uncommitted” in the Michigan Democratic primary, an option that was broadly seen as a protest vote against Biden’s policies on Gaza. Soon afterward, the uncommitted vote in Minnesota reached higher, at almost 19 percent, than Michigan’s 13 percent.

Voices on the left have been increasingly assertive in demanding Biden and his administration do more to curb Israel’s actions. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) last week reiterated his call that Netanyahu’s government should not receive “another nickel” from the U.S. for what Sanders characterized as its “immoral war against the Palestinian people.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called Israel’s actions in Gaza “an unfolding genocide” in a recent House speech.

But it was Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who underlined how even mainstream Democrats now fee acute concerns over Netanyahu’s conduct. Schumer, the nation’s most senior Jewish elected official, blasted the Israeli prime minister in a mid-March speech and called for new elections.

None of that has moved the Israeli prime minister, who hit back at Schumer’s speech as “totally inappropriate.” 

Netanyahu has also expressed determination to continue with plans for an invasion of Rafah, where well more than 1 million Palestinians are estimated to be sheltering. He and his allies say such a move is essential to vanquish Hamas.

An invasion will up the pressure on Biden even further. At the same time, he must contend with a number of Democrats who remain emphatic and hawkish supporters of Israel. Republicans, meanwhile, stand ready to accuse Biden and his party of abandoning Israel and being soft on terrorism.

Biden has notably modulated his rhetoric since the early months of the conflict when he embraced Netanyahu closely. One key moment came in early February, when Biden called Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attacks “over the top.”

Substantively, the biggest shift came last week when the U.S. facilitated the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, as well as the release of hostages. The United States had three times vetoed earlier U.N. resolutions calling for a cease-fire.

The American refusal to veto on this occasion provoked a furious reaction from Netanyahu, who canceled a planned trip to Washington by two senior figures in his government, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. 

Biden, in a March MSNBC interview, simultaneously referred to an Israeli invasion of Rafah as a red line but added he would never abandon Israel.

He has also proven resistant to demands from progressives that he impose stricter conditions on aid to Israel. He supports a proposal to supply Israel with an additional $14 billion in military aid.

The administration more generally has been reluctant to outline exactly what it would do in response to an attack on Rafah.

Vice President Harris told ABC News’s “This Week” on March 24 that a major Israeli operation in Rafah would be a “huge mistake” and said that, in terms of consequence, “I am ruling out nothing.”

But what those consequences might be remains a mystery.

Biden’s political fate may hang on coming up with a convincing answer.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Source: The Hill

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