Pro-Palestinian activists and voters vowing to withhold their support from President Joe Biden for not doing a better job protecting civilians in Gaza from Israel’s deadly bombardment may wind up helping replace him with a president who has no interest in protecting Palestinians at all.
Neither Donald Trump ― the coup-attempting former president and now Republican front-runner for the 2024 nomination ― nor those running against him have even brought up the many thousands of residents of Gaza, a large percentage of them children, who have already been killed in Israeli attacks.
Indeed, if anything, Trump and his rivals have urged Israeli leaders to be as brutal and as violent as they see fit.
“Finish them,” former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s summit late last month in Las Vegas, repeating a line she has been using since the October 7 attacks in Israel launched by Hamas. “It means giving Israel everything she needs to destroy Hamas, once and for all.”
“Hamas and its allies need to feel the wrath of God,” Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina told that same audience, adding: “May they feel the wrath of God with some American military hardware.”
Many Arab American and Muslim leaders, though, are not interested in a political comparison right now, seeking instead to get the current president, one many of them supported, to make Israel stop its attacks on Gaza.
“It was made very clear to them that this community will not forget our government’s involvement in these mass atrocities,” said one who participated in an outreach session by the White House last week and who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He’s our president. We’re his constituents.”
Waleed Shahid, a progressive Democratic consultant, said Biden and mainstream Democrats need to understand that it’s not just party activists who are outraged by his support for Israel despite all the civilian deaths; it’s Democratic voters as well.
“The voters are moving faster than the political class on this,” he said, adding that he understands the potential for Trump returning to office if progressives choose not to vote next year. “I would hope that the Democratic Party would not make the same mistake it made in 2016.”
That year, a significant percentage of young, progressive voters argued that there was no real difference between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and either did not vote or voted for a third-party candidate.
Trump wound up winning the presidency by a combined 77,744 votes across three key states.
Now running to win back the job he lost to Biden in 2020 and failed to hang on to through his January 6, 2021, coup attempt, Trump has not spoken of the civilian deaths in Gaza, which National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby earlier this week estimated have totalled “many, many thousands.” Rather, Trump has promised an even more punitive approach.
“When I’m back in the Oval Office, we will cut off every penny of money we send to the Palestinians and the terrorists on Day 1,” he said in an Iowa speech last month, in which he also said he would reinstate his travel ban on visitors from majority Muslim nations and deport students and others, including resident aliens, who protest in favor of Palestinians.
Expelling students, in fact, is a popular plan among those challenging Trump for the nomination as well.
“I was the first presidential candidate to say if you are here on a student visa as a foreign national and you are making common cause with Hamas, I’m canceling your visa and I’m sending you home, no questions asked,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said at Wednesday night’s debate in Miami.
Scott, also on that stage, agreed. “To every student who’s come to our country on a visa to a college campus, your visa is a privilege, not a right,” he said.
Biden, in contrast, has made a point of publicly reminding Israel that it has an obligation to obey the “laws of war” as it goes after Hamas, which includes the responsibility to avoid civilian deaths and injuries to the extent possible.
“Terrorists purposefully target civilians, kill them. We uphold the laws of war — the law of war. It matters. There’s a difference,” he said in his first speech about the October 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas that killed about 1,200 Israelis, with more than 200 people kidnapped and taken to Gaza as hostages. Biden repeated that caution during his visit to Israel the following week.
He has similarly called on Israel to allow shipments of food, water and medical supplies to enter Gaza to help injured and displaced residents and for Israel to periodically interrupt its attacks to allow residents to move to safety.
Israeli officials have confirmed that when they permitted aid convoys in and set up “humanitarian pauses” in their assault, they did so because of pressure from the Biden administration.
Biden and his White House have from shortly after the October 7 attacks been aware of the unhappiness in the Palestinian American community and the broader Muslim community because of his strong support for Israel’s military response.
Muslims in his administration have been encouraged to attend meetings with high-ranking officials to air their concerns. Biden himself met with five members of the Palestinian American and Arab American communities two weeks ago to solicit their criticisms while also explaining his decision-making and thought processes, White House officials said.
One official familiar with that session ― scheduled for 30 minutes but which lasted an hour ― said attendees came away persuaded that Biden cared about their views and their pain. “He hugged one of the attendees at the end and said it’s going to be OK,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
For some in the Palestinian community, though, Biden’s actions to date simply are not enough. Aya Hijazi, who was released from an Egyptian prison in 2017 following the intervention of Trump but who nevertheless supported Biden for president in 2020, is working on an essay outlining why she will not be backing Biden’s reelection ― even if the return of Trump would likely make life even more difficult for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
“The short answer is that there is no life more difficult than a genocide,” she said. “Vetoing cease-fires and then feigning concern is inconsequential. Asking to follow the rule of law and providing monetary, logistical and weapons support to break the law is also inconsequential and of no value.”
Shahid, the progressive strategist who once worked for Senator Bernie Sanders and the group Justice Democrats, said that the general election is a year away and that some voters angry at Biden now may well cast their ballots for him anyway if it comes down to a choice between Biden and Trump.
On the other hand, he said he can understand why Palestinian Americans in particular might not see much of a difference between the two.
“There’s an intellectual argument that Biden is better for Palestinians than Trump, and it is correct,” he said. “But when there are 4,000 Palestinian children who have been killed, mostly by Israeli bombs, it doesn’t feel that way.”