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October 27, 2021 12:31 pm

Gaza 2021: How Biden Handled His Far-Left Hamas Caucus Problem

avatar by Jonathan Schanzer


A streak of light is seen as Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 16, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War by Jonathan Schanzer (FDD Press, 2021)

In Gaza Conflict 2021, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Vice President for Research Jonathan Schanzer provides the first in-depth look at the May 2021 war initiated by Hamas against Israel, and how the Islamic Republic of Iran is the biggest beneficiary of Hamas’ attacks and Israel’s responses.

In the excerpt below, Schanzer describes the challenges US President Joe Biden had at the time from his “left flank,” and how Israel benefited from Biden’s four decades of foreign policy experience.

Early on in the conflict, [US President Joe] Biden had a call with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, after which a White House readout said the American president “reiterated his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks.” In a separate statement, the White House noted that Biden “expressed his support for a cease-fire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners toward that end.” Notably, he did not demand that Israel end its response to Hamas’ rocket barrage. The president also blocked several resolutions at the UN Security Council that would have censured Israel. …

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By the end of the war, a handful of hard-left Democrats were openly voicing frustration with Biden’s policy. In their view, Trump had been too supportive of Israel during his time in office. These progressives … were hoping to reverse that policy, among others.

Biden’s policy probably came under the heaviest fire from Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a Palestinian-American. On May 17, she told MSNBC television viewers that Biden’s rhetoric was insufficient: “You don’t hear the words ‘Palestinians deserve human rights, that Palestinians deserve to exist, that Palestinians deserve to live freely, that children need to be safe and secure.’” Tlaib criticized “the hypocrisy of us saying that we need to be stewards of human rights, except for Palestinians,” adding, “I hope that my president, our president, speaks up and speaks truth about what exactly is happening, because I know [officials in the White House] know.”

The Congresswoman accused Biden of “taking orders” from Netanyahu, stating that “passive language” from the White House was “enabling” Israel’s government. She urged Biden to “speak out against this violence in a very aggressive way that holds Netanyahu and his leadership accountable.”

Tlaib and Biden had a rather dramatic exchange on [an airport] tarmac in Detroit before a May 18 political rally in Dearborn, Michigan. The conversation was reportedly tense, with Tlaib pushing Biden to punish Israel. During the rally, Biden told her, “I admire your intellect, I admire your passion, and I admire your concern for so many other people.”

“You’re a fighter, and God thank you for being a fighter,” he said, promising to ensure that Tlaib’s family in the West Bank remained safe.

Tlaib was not alone. Her colleague from New York, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), called Israel an “apartheid state,” earning her headlines. She urged tougher American policies against Israel. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) likened Israel to terrorist groups for its airstrikes in Gaza, sparking outrage among centrists, not to mention the American right. Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) attempted to tie Gaza to the Black Lives Matter movement, stating, “The fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected. We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma. We are anti-war. We are anti-occupation. And we are anti-apartheid. Period.” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also weighed in, tweeting: “The devastation in Gaza is unconscionable. We must urge an immediate ceasefire. The killing of Palestinians and Israelis must end. We must also take a hard look at nearly $4 billion a year in military aid to Israel. It is illegal for US aid to support human rights violations.”

The rhetoric of these legislators and a handful of others was reminiscent of another member of Congress, [Republican] Paul Findley, who represented Illinois’ 20th district from 1961 to 1983, and passed away in 2019. In the late 1970s, at the height of the PLO’s global terrorism campaign, Findley emerged as a vociferous proponent of the movement and a harsh critic of Israel. He called himself “Arafat’s best friend in Congress.” Findley’s anti-Israel rhetoric was not exactly a ticket to success, given the overwhelming support Israel enjoyed in Congress, not to mention on Main Street America. In 1982, he lost his seat to Richard Durbin. Not surprisingly, Findley blamed his defeat on the “Israel lobby.” In 1985, he authored a screed titled “They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby.”

Findley was, in essence, the godfather of the vitriol exhibited during the Gaza war. He was the original member of what could now only be described as the “Hamas Caucus” in Congress. Of course, there are significant differences between then and now. Today’s toxic and polarized political atmosphere in Washington grants the most outrageous political flamethrowers an outsized megaphone. This stands in stark contrast to the political norms of the 1960s and 1970s, which called for more decorum among our politicians, even if American politics had become more unwieldy relative to the generations prior. Social media — something hardly conceivable during Findley’s days in office — is partly to blame today. Twitter and Facebook have completely transformed the way politicians engage on issues and relate to their constituents. Rather than avoiding conflict, legislators now run toward political feuds on these and other platforms. The Hamas Caucus of today understands that expressing overt animosity toward Israel comes at little cost.

Biden clearly understood that his left flank was a problem. Even if he wanted to support America’s ally in a war it did not start, against an Iranian proxy that sought nothing less than its destruction, the president had to play politics. As the 2021 Gaza war dragged on, Biden began to talk tough to Israel. However, a careful examination of the timing of this rhetoric reveals that the toughest talk came only after the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was reported on Israeli television. With roughly two days until the ceasefire was to take effect, the American president had a blank check to cash. He could call upon the Israelis to halt their operations in Gaza, with the full knowledge that they had already agreed to do so.

On May 19, in the fourth conversation between the two leaders since the crisis erupted, Biden told Netanyahu that he expected a “significant de-escalation” in Gaza, demanding a “path to a ceasefire.” According to one leaked report (presumably by a White House official looking to convey that the president was getting tough with Israel), Biden told Netanyahu that he was “done kidding around,” telling the Israeli leader it was time to end the operation. …

From Israel’s perspective, however, Biden’s tough talk was not a problem. The reality was that he gave the IDF exactly what it needed: the political cover … to neutralize Hamas’ military assets. … In retrospect, the American president handled the Hamas Caucus with the expertise that only someone with four decades of experience in Washington could wield.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research and a Middle East scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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