Nearly a week into what has been getting close to all-out war between Israeli forces and Hamas, the terror group that governs Gaza, President Joe Biden is facing sharp criticism from Republicans and some Democrats at home for his response.
His administration has tried to show high-level involvement after criticism that Biden wasn’t engaged on the issue, but his vocal support for Israel’s government has now sparked condemnation from progressive lawmakers, even as it fails to ward off former Trump officials’ criticisms, too.
“My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later,” Biden told reporters earlier this week, adding the next day that he’d seen no “overreaction” in Israel’s response so far and that he backs Israel’s “right to self-defense.”
Despite his administration’s calls for “de-escalation,” those comments appear to have been taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a green light for further military action.
After Biden and Netanyahu spoke Wednesday, Hamas rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes continued Thursday, and on Friday, Israeli ground troops deployed along the border, firing into the blockaded Palestinian territory from the Israeli side of the border while aircraft continued to strike targets.
In five days of bloodshed, 122 people, including 31 children, have been killed in the Gaza Strip, and least 900 others have been injured, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Seven people, including a 6-year-old, have been killed in Israel by rocket fire, with more than 523 others wounded, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday for meetings with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials in Israel and the West Bank, according to State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter.
Amr’s trip comes after phone calls from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Netanyahu, as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has also spoken to his Israeli and Egyptian counterparts.
But the Biden administration has been criticized as flat-footed here, a charge they reject, because the White House has yet to nominate a U.S. ambassador to Israel or restore the U.S. consul general in East Jerusalem, a de facto envoy to the Palestinians. Unlike the Obama or Trump administrations, there is also no special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian issues. Amr, who served as President Obama’s deputy special envoy, is the highest ranking official for the issue.
The Biden administration “didn’t stumble blindly into ignoring the conflict. It was an affirmative decision, perhaps a calculated risk,” said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, noting the “little political and foreign policy benefit to gain by investing significant capital” in addressing the decades-old conflict.
But while the U.S. didn’t light the “fire,” she added, “the U.S. by its actions can either be in the realm of ignoring, fueling — and I think sometimes ignoring is fueling — or fire-fighting, as it’s having to do right now. If we don’t want to find ourselves in that constant pendulum swing from fire-fighting to ignoring, I think we need to be in the business of active fire-proofing and that is going to be the question for the administration as it moves forward,” she said.
To critics on the left, Biden has been setting his firehose on the wrong side, defending Israel’s response and declining to call Palestinian leadership.
“This is not about both sides. This is about an imbalance of power,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on the House floor Thursday. “The president and many other figures this week stated that Israel has a right to self defense … But do Palestinians have a right to survive?”
In a letter this week, Ocasio-Cortez was one of over two dozen progressive lawmakers who urged the Biden administration to exert pressure on Israel to halt the potential evictions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood where they face pressure from Israeli settlers — and to review U.S. assistance to the Israeli government.
The issue of evictions is pending before the Israeli Supreme Court, but has prompted protests from Palestinians in recent weeks — along with the use of force against Palestinians at Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site located in Jerusalem’s Old City. Israeli forces stormed the building last week, saying Palestinians were stockpiling rocks and Molotov cocktails and sparking clashes that left hundreds injured.
While that violence precipitated this latest round of bloodshed, several Republican officials, have accused Biden of not standing strongly enough with Israel. They say his delay in calling Netanyahu after being sworn in or his resumption of U.S. financial assistance to the Palestinians helped spark the violence.
“A weak foreign policy emboldens terrorists and makes the world less safe. America’s leaders must be clear: we stand unequivocally with our ally and friend, Israel,” Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State and a likely 2024 presidential contender, tweeted Friday.
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