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As Israel expands Gaza offensive, it has few critics in Washington

A small number of Democrats have expressed concern about possible Palestinian civilian deaths as Israel expands its offensive into Gaza following last weekend's attack by Hamas militants. But they're unlikely to shape near-term policy.

Democrats' growing sympathy for Palestinians unlikely to shape near-term policy

People standing at dusk outside the Capitol dome

Americans' ardent support for Israel is palpable in poll after poll showing far greater sympathy for the Jewish state than for Palestinians.

It's evidenced in the vote in the last U.S. Congress to top up American funding for Israel's missile-defence system: a lopsided result of 420 to 9.

So that American backing is not in question; it's a decades-long reality and was just reinforced with the blood-curdling massacre of Israeli civilians by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.

What's less certain is the reaction from one important constituency as Israel expands its counter-offensive in Gaza and as the death toll mounts among Palestinian civilians.

We're talking about the U.S. left. It's virtually the only place in American politics where there might be a debate — over what's acceptable in war, and about a path back to peace.

And signs are emerging of Democrats wanting to pressure Israel into abiding by certain limits in its operation.

Fifty-five mostly progressive lawmakers have written to President Joe Biden demanding that he press Israel to protect civilians as required by international law; restore delivery of food, water and electricity; and create a humanitarian corridor.

A split exists in the Democratic Party over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for the first time ever, earlier this year, Democrats expressed more sympathy for Palestinians than Israelis.

People stand on a large pile of rubble surrounded by destroyed buildings.

That attitude remains a minority view in official Washington, where Democrats run the White House, the Pentagon and the U.S. Senate.

"It is still small, but it is growing," said Matt Duss, who was a longtime foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders. "I think we're going to see more Democrats raising those issues [like protecting civilian lives]."

That tension is bubbling up already.

Generational divide among Democrats

There was an angry exchange at a meeting of Capitol Hill Democrats — and boos at a Boston event when one Democrat urged de-escalation, and another got cheers for dismissing such talk.

After some progressives urged a ceasefire in Gaza, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday told reporters: "We believe they're wrong. We believe they're repugnant and we believe they're disgraceful."

There are generational and ideological divides at play.

WATCH | U.S. sends weapons, warships as it reaffirms support for Israel:

U.S. reaffirms support for Israel, sends weapons and warships

4 days ago

Duration 2:03

Featured VideoThe U.S. has reinforced its support for Israel in its war against Hamas by sending weapons and warships without any conditions. President Joe Biden also warned other countries against joining the war.

It's primarily younger and progressive Democrats voicing alarm after Israel warned people to leave northern Gaza, including Ayanna Pressley; Ilhan Omar, who called it an "ethnic cleansing"; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Mark Pocan, who called it unacceptable and ridiculous. Bernie Sanders, an independent senior U.S. senator from Vermont, suggested Israel is committing war crimes.

Rashida Tlaib is the only Palestinian American member of Congress. The Michigan Democrat had been relatively quiet this week but then issued a scathing statement about her own party's behaviour.

"American Muslims and Arab Americans do not feel represented by our government right now," Tlaib said in a statement on Friday. "The Biden Administration is failing in its duty to protect all civilian and American lives in Gaza. I cannot believe I have to beg our country to value every human life, no matter their faith or ethnicity."

Centrist and older Democrats have been more muted. They include President Joe Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who first met when Biden was in her city for a pro-Israel fundraiser in the 1970s.

Pelosi once vividly declared that if the U.S. Capitol ever crumbles to the ground, the last thing standing will be America's co-operation with Israel.

Since the Second World War, Israel has received more foreign assistance than any country from the U.S., which provides nearly one-fifth of Israel's current defence budget and vital military technology. This will unquestionably continue.

Heavily armed soldiers sit in a convoy of armoured personnel carriers.

That missile-defence vote is a good example. The left may criticize Israel on university campuses and in a few publications, but it rarely happens in the corridors of Congress, says an author on the history of U.S. politics regarding Israel.

"It's all hat, no cattle. All generals, no soldiers," historian and journalist Eric Alterman said in an interview, describing criticism of Israel. "It has no political power."

U.S. and Israel: From 1948 to today

Alterman's book We Are Not One: A History of America's Fight Over Israel traces a history in which Americans backed Israel, literally from its earliest hour.

The United States became the first country to recognize Israel in 1948, a mere 11 minutes after its declaration of independence.

Harry Truman, the president at the time, did it so quickly he didn't even know the name of the new country in his prepared remarks; he crossed out the typewritten words, "Jewish state," and replaced them with words hastily scrawled in ink: "State of Israel."

This statement by Harry Truman, signed and dated May 14, 1948, recognizes Israel.

He'd been wrestling with an internal dilemma. Truman was torn between two sets of arguments — one from his national security team, as the CIA and others warned against recognition. This new country, they argued, would inflame regional tensions and create a constant challenge for U.S. security.

To make matters worse, they said, it could imperil U.S. access to oil. The Saudi king had already warned Franklin Roosevelt, the previous U.S. president, that Arabs would rather die than yield their land to the Jews.

On the other hand, Alterman's book describes Truman being deeply moved by accounts of Jews languishing after the war in European refugee camps. His political advisers also viewed recognition as a no-brainer — the election was a few months away, and this, they said, was critical to competing in New York, the most important swing state at the time.

In his book, Alterman describes a gradual shift in opinions.

Israeli soldiers inspect burnt cars that are abandoned in a carpark near where a festival was held before an attack by Hamas gunmen from Gaza that left at least 260 people dead, by Israel's border with Gaza in southern Israel, October 10, 2023.

Israel came to be seen as a powerhouse and, in the eyes of some left-wing movements, as an aggressor, following its triumph in the Six-Day War of 1967, then in a 1982 massacre in a Lebanese refugee camp by an Israeli-backed Christian militia.

Meanwhile, the right took up Israel's cause with increasing religious fervour.

Christian leaders who had political influence, like Jerry Falwell, preached that the conditions for the second coming of Jesus Christ required Israel's triumph in a cataclysmic war, possibly involving Russia and Iran.

"Israel has become a conservative cause," Alterman told CBC News. "It didn't used to be."

WATCH | United Nations issues dire warning over Gaza evacuation order:

Gaza evacuation order prompts dire warning from UN

1 day ago

Duration 1:36

Featured VideoIsrael ordered more than a million people to leave the northern half of the Gaza Strip within 24 hours amid its massive bombardment in retaliation for Hamas's attacks last weekend. Ahead of a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council, Secretary General António Guterres warned of a disaster of forcing so many people to flee and called for immediate humanitarian access throughout Gaza to get fuel, food and water to those in need. 'Even wars have rules,' Guterres said. 'Civilians must be protected and also never used as shields.'

In the last few years, a confluence of events led younger Democrats to take up Palestinian issues as a matter of social justice.

Matt Duss points to the Black Lives Matter movement and to Sanders's own presidential campaigns; he recalls one striking moment in a debate with Hillary Clinton where Sanders criticized Israeli military tactics and was cheered.

Duss said a growing progressive left started taking issues of equality and racial justice seriously. "And that extends to foreign policy," he said.

Netanyahu versus U.S. Democrats

Then there was the Benjamin Netanyahu factor.

There was a growing sense that Israel's right-wing government was becoming a political adversary; Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, campaigned against Barack Obama's Iran nuclear deal in a speech inside the U.S. Congress, and he even appeared alongside Obama's 2012 election opponent, Mitt Romney, when Romney was in Jerusalem for a campaign fundraiser.

A white-haired man in a black suit and blue ties stands in front of flags.

Of note here is the deep liberalism of American Jews: Three-quarters supported both Obama and Biden, which is in stark contrast to conservative Israel, where former Republican president Donald Trump had sky-high approval — 71 per cent in one survey.

A 2015 report warned of a crisis in the Israeli-Jewish diaspora relationship. It found Jews abroad increasingly angry and alienated by Israel's policies and doubting its desire for peace.

In fact, the Israeli government announced a large settlement expansion just as then-vice president Joe Biden's plane landed in Israel in 2010; Biden issued a scathing statement and showed up 90 minutes late for dinner with Netanyahu.

Yet the bond endures.

A white-haired man in a blue suit speaks at a podium in front of the American flag.

Biden is winning plaudits in Israel for his unflinching support since last weekend's terrorist attacks, including deploying military assets to the region. There's even a billboard with Biden's face on it in Tel Aviv.

When it comes to sparing Palestinian civilians, the president has exerted only a soft hint of U.S. pressure: Biden and his secretary of state have talked about how it's a core value for democracies to avoid killing civilians.

In Alterman's view, Biden faces minimal political pressure to defend Palestinians. At the very most, he said, Biden may fear that some young progressives might not turn out to vote for him if he's seen as too staunchly pro-Israel.

What progressives want

What would progressives want?

Duss said he wants civilians protected. Israel has every right to respond to the Hamas attacks, he said, but not to inflict mass death. Eventually, he wants pressure to declare a ceasefire.

Finally, once this war is over, he said, Palestinians can't be ignored, with Gazans forever trapped in a crowded enclave, bereft of economic opportunity and freedom of movement.

"This is inhumane. It is indefensible," he said.

A man wearing a blue uniform and cap carries an elderly man to the hospital.

The inevitable retort — and Duss knows it's coming — is: Where is Israel's peace partner? With whom can it negotiate? The Palestinian Authority has no control over Gaza, and it lacks legitimacy.

Hamas, meanwhile, calls for the total destruction of Israel in its charter, a commitment it demonstrated with mass civilian bloodshed.

Duss admits there's no obvious solution. The best hope he sees is to empower what he describes as a vibrant Palestinian civil society, and encourage gradual state-building and elections projects.

Alterman sees bleakness across the horizon. There's not much he agrees with Netanyahu on, and he blames the leader for marginalizing more mainstream Palestinian voices.

A large crowd of protests wave flags and hold placards.

He concurs, with sadness, on this point: When it comes to making peace, there's no obvious negotiating partner.

"I was pessimistic a week ago, but, God, I am really pessimistic today," he said. "I feel like this war is going to go on forever."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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