Joe Biden is facing criticism after a social media post sowed confusion over his stance on the Israel-Hamas war, with some viewing it as evidence that he is bowing to domestic pressure for a ceasefire.
“Hamas unleashed a terrorist attack because they fear nothing more than Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace,” the US president’s X account said on Tuesday. “To continue down the path of terror, violence, killing, and war is to give Hamas what they seek. We can’t do that.”
The tweet was lifted from Biden’s own remarks in Nantucket, Massachusetts, last week when he spoke about the release of hostages by Hamas and increase of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians. But the White House’s decision to republish three sentences stripped of context triggered a flurry of differing interpretations.
Some on the right accused Biden of drawing moral equivalence between Hamas’s terrorist attack and Israel’s bombing campaign. Tom Cotton, a military veteran and Republican senator for Arkansas, tweeted: “It took Biden only a few weeks after the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust to turn on Israel and compare Israel’s actions to terror.”
Others welcomed the tweet as the first time that Biden has clearly warned how Israel’s aggressive military offensive is working to Hamas’s benefit. They also saw it as a sign that he is heeding weeks of criticism from progressive activists over his unwillingness to call for a ceasefire.
Rae Abileah, a Jewish clergyperson and creative change strategist, said: “Perhaps people powered movements and democracy are showing some signs of working. The job of elected officials is to represent their constituents who are overwhelmingly clamouring for a ceasefire, who are overwhelmingly against this grotesque violence which we are seeing on our phones and our social media the way we saw the violence in the Vietnam war.”
Biden may also have been spooked by dismal poll numbers over his handling of the war. On Wednesday the Axios website reported that surveys by the Arab American Institute suggests a dramatic fall in support among Arab American voters in recent weeks. It quoted Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, , as saying: “Unless Biden turns into Jesus Christ and brings some Palestinians back from the dead, we’re not supporting him.”
Israel’s response to the 7 October attack by Hamas, which left 1,200 people dead and roughly 240 taken hostage, has caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Nearly 15,000 Palestinians – most of them women and children – have been killed, according to the territory’s health ministry. A US-backed truce in recent days has allowed the release of dozens of hostages while 180 Palestinians have been freed from Israeli prisons.
The job of elected officials is to represent their constituents who are overwhelmingly clamouring for a ceasefire …Rae Abileah
Recent media accounts portray a president caught in a tension between his moral instincts, long supportive of Israel, and political expediency less than a year out from a presidential election. Last weekend the Washington Post described how the war in Gaza has rattled the administration more than any other issue of his presidency.
In a report based on interviews with 27 officials and advisers, the Post highlighted an incident in which Biden had questioned the death toll provided by health ministry in Gaza, telling reporters: “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.”
A day later, the report said, Biden met five prominent Muslim Americans who objected what they saw as his lack of sensitivity to civilian suffering. He told them: “I’m sorry. I’m disappointed in myself. I will do better.”
Then the New York Times reported on divisions inside the White House regarding Biden’s policy. It described “deep anger among longtime supporters and even inside the White House, where some younger staff members, particularly those with Arab or Muslim backgrounds, have said they feel disenchanted with the president they serve”.
In this climate there has been a shift in tone from Biden’s first response to the Hamas attacks – widely described as one of the most pro-Israel speeches by any American president – to more recent rhetoric focused humanitarian aid and extending the truce to allow for more hostage releases. The White House has also made clear that it does not support military operations in south Gaza unless Israel can show that it has accounted for all internally displaced people.
Some find the mixed messaging problematic. Brett Bruen, former global engagement director of the Barack Obama White House, said: “You heard articulated during the first few weeks the interest that he has in taking a clear stand on terrorism, standing by an ally that has obviously just endured unspeakable tragedy.
“But what seems to have become a constant, whether it’s Ukraine, Afghanistan, now Israel, is that you can’t take this administration’s word to the bank. That is going over the medium term, if not the long term, to have some real consequences for who’s going to invest what. Quite frankly, it’s going to be at the benefit of some of the authoritarian-led countries such as China, even a number of Gulf nations.”
Bruen, president of the public affairs agency Global Situation Room, added: “This White House has repeatedly managed foreign policy with a focus on the polls. It’s unfortunate but that’s how they seem to have approached decisions of whether to prioritise hostages like Brittney Griner or Paul Whelan, how to handle the withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is a bit of a pattern here.”
The White House denied that Biden’s Tuesday tweet represented a softening of support for Israel. An official told the Jewish Insider: “He meant that we can’t lose hope for peace, ultimately, in the region, that it’s still incredibly important that we continue to lay the groundwork for, and create the conditions for, a lasting peace, and that involves a two-state solution.”
But this drew yet further opprobrium. Usamah Andrabi, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, said: “President Biden’s Democratic base is desperate for the most basic anti-war and pro-peace sentiments from this administration, but the White House couldn’t even minimally express that without immediately walking it back – no question as a result of the same rightwing pressure that has put him so out of step with an overwhelming majority of his own voters.”
Meanwhile the ranks of congressional Democrats calling for a ceasefire, or to require Israel to change its policies as a condition to receiving US military aid, continue to swell. Some on the left have denounced Biden for siding with Israel in its military campaign, leaving him with work to do to unify the party ahead of the 2024 election.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: “This ultimately is not a difference that can be fudged. This isn’t something like the Green New Deal where you can give the climate people 45% of what they want and they may not be happy but they’ll be satisfied.
This isn’t something like the Green New Deal where you can give … 45% of what they want and … they’ll be satisfiedHenry Olsen
“There is no middle ground between ceasefire and destruction of Hamas, so he has to choose. I think he will choose destruction of Hamas, although he would very much like to see Israel decide that’s not what they’re going to insist on. But I think it is what they will insist on.”