Gaza war: US-Israel relationship is in period of transition as Biden says Israel is losing support
With US president Joe Biden under increasing pressure to alter his policy towards Israel, it is significant that he has said publicly that Israel is starting to lose international support for its offensive over “indiscriminate” bombing of Gaza.
His comments were made at a fundraising event on December 12, and may well be part of attempts by the US to put more pressure on Israel to rein in its intensive bombing campaign and to do more to avoid deaths of civilians. Biden did add that there was “no question about the need to take on Hamas”.
The US has a long history as an ally of Israel. It was the first country to recognise Israel as a sovereign nation, in 1948, and has long seen it as a strategic partner. It has also made significant efforts to negotiate a peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israel. However, Biden had a cool relationship with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu even before the offensive.
Biden’s remarks followed a UN general assembly vote, also on December 12, for a ceasefire in Gaza, with 153 nations in favour and the US one of a handful against. The US has been blocking a vote on a ceasefire at the more influential UN security council.
The nation’s attitude towards the conflict is split along both party and generational lines, according to a recent CBS/YouGov poll. This is part of a picture that suggests the long-term relationship between the US and Israel, and attitudes to it, are in a period of transition.
Attitudes to US policy
In the poll of more than 2,000 Americans, just 39% of those questioned approved of Biden’s attempts to broker peace in the Middle East, down slightly from October.
But there’s a distinct split along party lines, with 63% of Democrats approving of Biden’s policy in Israel and Gaza, while just 22% Republicans believe that Biden’s approach is right. Around 55% of those who identify themselves as liberals also support Biden, while just 23% of conservatives think that Biden has acted correctly.
Young people are more likely to back Biden’s handling of the conflict than older people. Responders under the age of 30 were divided, with 50% approving – the highest approval rating of any age group. Among older adults, 32% of those between the age of 30 and 44 approved of Biden’s handling of the conflict – the lower support of any age group.
Around 41% thought that the US was giving Israel just enough support, and 31% felt it was too much. Only 28% felt that Israel should have been shown more support by the US. Around 48% of Republicans thought that the US had not been strong enough in its support.
Biden’s backing for Israel is also getting held up in Congress. In early December, the Senate blocked a major funding bill aimed at supporting both Ukraine and Israel. The 49-to-51 vote was a result of every Republican voting against providing US$111bn (£88.6bn) of support, US$60bn of which was destined for Ukraine, unless Biden included stricter US border and immigration regulations.
Left-wing Vermont senator Bernie Sanders voted with the Republicans. Sanders is an independent, but he often votes with the Democrats. Sanders said in a letter to Congress, that he felt that such support would be irresponsible. He felt that any further military aid had to be conditional on Israel ensuring the protection of civilians.
“I think what the Congress has got to do is make it clear to Netanyahu that we’re not going to simply give him a blank check to kill women and children in Palestine,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation in an interview on December 10.
But Jake Sullivan, the White House’s national security advisor, had already told senators in a private meeting that the White House would not be seeking conditions on aid for Israel.
Maryland’s Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen told the Associated Press that the meeting addressed Democratic party concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
In a column for the Washington Post, Van Hollen wrote that although the Israelis were conducting a “just” war, the US has “an obligation to the American people to ensure our support is consistent with our interests and values — and in line with U.S. and international humanitarian law”.
Why we should consider a transitional administration for Gaza
Netanyahu and his positioning
It appeared to be business as usual when the US vetoed the US security council’s resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire on December 8. Robert Wood, the US deputy ambassador to the UN, told the council that that any ceasefire would allow Hamas to continue to rule in Gaza.
But there have also been calls from within the US for a reassessment of its relationship with Israel, and criticism of Israel’s military tactics.
The Washington Post columnist Thomas Friedman has said that Netanyahu’s attempts to promote ties between Israel and European far-right parties should cause alarm for the Biden administration, for example.
Despite the opposition, the conflict is currently unlikely to have a considerable effect on the 2024 presidential election. In the CBS/YouGov poll, just 4% of those polled said that the conflict was the most important problem facing the country. Of greater concern were inflation (27%) and immigration (20%). But that doesn’t mean it will fade from the headlines.
If Israel’s aggressive policy of violence towards Gaza continues, it will undoubtedly lead to a louder call for a ceasefire from more people in the US and abroad. The Israel-US partnership is still a strong one and remains important to the US’s Middle East objectives, but Biden knows there are those in his party who want him to continue to call out Israel’s excessive force and he may well want to put more distance between his government and that of Netanyahu.
Dafydd Townley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.