Will Biden’s Israel Policy Matter in November?

Many Democrats are worried about the fallout.

POLITICO (“Democrats fear Netanyahu may have undermined Biden’s image among voters“):

When the Israel-Hamas war broke out six months ago, it represented the kind of global crisis that President Joe Biden told voters he is uniquely equipped to confront.

But as the U.S. struggled to prevent the conflict from spiraling into a humanitarian catastrophe, some of Biden’s close advisers and allies began worrying that rather than bolstering his image as an experienced global leader, the president’s steadfast support for Israel’s offensive risked further complicating his argument that the election is a choice between his competent moral clarity and former President Donald Trump’s chaos.

Those concerns have been echoed in a series of interviews and statements from prominent Democratic and Democratic-aligned senators, including Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders, in recent days. And they have been an unstated undercurrent to the White House’s decision this past week to issue a stark threat to Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu that U.S. support could evaporate without major changes following a strike that killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers.


“It has undermined one of his most important assets against Trump,” Matt Duss, a former top foreign policy adviser to Sanders now at the Center for International Policy, said of Biden’s handling of the war up until this week. “Biden’s reputation was — agree or disagree with him — he’s a decent guy, he’s an empathetic guy, he’s an honest guy. But this policy has been a cruel policy.”

The Israel-Hamas conflict is not the first complex Middle East crisis to challenge Biden’s political and diplomatic skills. The White House faced mounting criticism in 2021 over its pullout from Afghanistan, with Biden facing questions over the planning as well as, more broadly, whether he was fulfilling his own pledge to be a force for global stability. His poll numbers stumbled badly and have never fully recovered.

The parallels are not exact, not least because U.S. troops are not involved in the war in Gaza. But nearly three years later, Democrats fear once more that the president is being hampered by his handling of a conflict overseas.

“I applaud President Biden for successfully urging Prime Minister Netanyahu to open another border crossing from Israel to allow robust delivery of humanitarian aid,” said Kaine, a leading Democratic voice on foreign policy. “But this was an obvious solution that should have happened months ago.”

Biden’s “current approach,” Kaine added, “is not working.”


Still, there is persistent worry in Democratic circles that the visceral images emerging from Gaza each day are denting enthusiasm among Biden voters. Most visibly, the worsening humanitarian situation has angered an important part of Biden’s base — young voters, Arab and Muslim Americans and progressives — outraged by the U.S.’s inability to stop the unfolding horrors. Biden now faces protests nearly everywhere he travels, as well as concerns that a Democratic Convention this summer will be consumed by voter anger in the streets.

There are also indications that Americans are souring on Biden’s handling of the conflict more broadly. Just 47 percent of Democrats approved of Biden’s Middle East strategy in March, according to a Gallup poll, down from 60 percent last November. Among independents, the president’s Middle East approval rating sat at 21 percent.

Those warning signs permeated Biden’s inner circle in recent weeks. One senior adviser, granted anonymity to discuss confidential conversations, said leading up to Biden’s confrontational call with Netanyahu on Thursday that there was worry Biden’s difficulty in controlling his Israeli counterpart could undermine his claim to steady competence in voters’ eyes, and elevate Trump’s arguments for projecting a brasher — if far more erratic — image on the world stage.

“I think there’s great awareness that the U.S. position [toward the war] has been damaging to its standing internationally,” said Ivo Daalder, CEO of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Daalder, who is close to senior administration officials, added that up until now, Biden has viewed his support of Israel as a deep-seated principle. “But the fact is, Bibi has provoked him so much that he may finally change.”

WaPo‘s Karen DeYoung (“Six months into Gaza war, Biden confronts the limits of U.S. leverage“) adds:

International support for Israel in the immediate wake of Hamas’s invasion — which saw the killing of about 1,200 Israelis and the taking of around 250 hostages — has turned to outrage and charges of Israeli war crimes. To much of the world, the U.S. backing for Israel’s war effort has left the administration morally compromised, even complicit in the destruction and death.

At home, in what is already a contentious election year, Biden is stuck between a Republican Party demanding support for Israel at all costs, and increasing numbers of Democrats demanding he stop the steady stream of weapons sent to Jerusalem. His campaign stops are frequently disrupted by pro-Palestinian protests.

Administration officials maintain that things, as bad as they are, would be worse still had they not successfully pushed for changes in Israel’s war tactics, and persuaded Netanyahu to lift his government’s embargo on all supplies of food, water and fuel into Gaza. The negotiation that won a week-long cease-fire in November and brought about half the hostages home was a bright spot, one they had hoped would be followed by a longer and more significant pause in the fighting.


“The influence of any outside party — even one that has theoretically on paper an enormous amount of influence on Israel — is limited,” said Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a former diplomat who spent nearly three decades working on Israeli-Palestinian relations in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“The Middle East is literally littered with the remains of great powers who believed they could impose their limits” on the actions of those who live there, Miller said.

Many factors make this situation unique. Though Biden has had a complicated relationship with Netanyahu, the president is said to have a deep-seated, personal commitment to Israel that goes back to his first years as a U.S. senator. But Netanyahu “is trying to save his political skin by performative opposition to Biden in his approach to Gaza,” said Jeffrey Feltman of the Brookings Institution, who served as top official on the Middle East at the Obama administration’s State Department before becoming U.N. undersecretary for political affairs.

Losing U.S. support in the past “would be an almost insurmountable obstacle for an Israeli politician,” Feltman said. And unlike Washington’s prior interventions to make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the United States has no leverage at all against Hamas, a terrorist organization that is still holding upward of 100 hostages, including a handful of Americans.


Miller, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees little way out for the administration. Asked where the war would be six months from now, with the U.S. election just weeks away, he said, “I would like to think the kinetic phase of Israel’s ground campaign is over. More hostages are out, more humanitarian aid is in. But you still can’t get around the reality that Israel is determined to kill the leadership of Hamas.”

I remain skeptical that Biden’s handling of this crisis will have much of an impact on November’s election. With rare exceptions, American voters simply don’t care much about foreign policy. While polls are great at showing the direction of sentiment, they typically don’t tell us much about intensity and salience.

The exception, perhaps, is Michigan, with its huge Arab population. Once a reliable Republican state, it has gone for the Democratic nominee in every election since 1992 except 2016, when it went incredibly narrowly (47.5% to 47.3%) for Trump over Hillary Clinton. It flipped back blue in 2016, going 50.6% for Biden and 47.8% for Trump. It’s possible that anger over what’s happening in Gaza could put the state back in Trump’s column.

In a rational world, the fact that Trump is considerably more bellicose in his support of Netanyahu than Biden should mitigate whatever damage the war has done. We do not live in that world.

Further, Miller is right: there’s really only so much Biden can do to shape Israeli policy. We could, I suppose, refuse to provide more military support. But, first, Congress may well not allow that to happen. And, second, that would likely be more politically damaging than the current stance.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, Middle East, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tony W says:

    The only valid counterargument to this line of thinking is to compare the two candidates to each other.

    Comparing Biden to some fantasy candidate who might have done things differently, yada, yada, yada is just mental masturbation.

    The options are Trump who would be 100% in favor of whatever Israel wants to do, or Biden who will take a measured approach and consider all factors in the conflict before making policy decisions.

  2. Not the IT Dept. says:

    We’ll see if Netanyahu is still PM in November. One of the advantages of a parliamentary system is that leaders can be replaced without an election, although one is usually held soon afterwards to ratify the new leadership.

    The biggest problem in the US-Israel relationship right now is Netanyahu, and his removal can only help. Israel simply can’t afford his “leadership” any longer.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    How Biden’s position will affect the election is a legitimate topic for a blog. But FWIW, I don’t think Biden is considering that in his efforts. I think he correctly sees this as a crucial sea change in our Mideast policy and he is willing to steer the course regardless of the politics. Bottom line, if Israel does not change its long term plans for the Palestinians (apartheid, and driving them from the land) he is willing to demote them to just another Mideast power, someone who we deal with because of the importance of the region but not because of the false but convenient fiction that it is the “only real democracy in the Middle East”, as there are no true democracies in the region.

    As for the politics, I think Michigan can be mitigated by, a) calling attention to the Administration distancing and calling out Israel, and b) highlighting Trump’s “Kill them all but quickly” policies.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    The biggest problem in the US-Israel relationship right now is Netanyahu

    It is all too easy to identify one person as the root of all problems whether it is Bibi, Putin, Erdogan or Orban. The reality is usually that whatever influence they have is simply because they are willing to push the elite’s consensus opinions farther and more publicly than others would. Apartheid and land confiscation has been Israel’s de facto position since the successful assassination of Rabin.

    And since murder and annihilation is the decades long Palestinian position, the replacement of one person with another, on either side, will have no effect on that.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W: You assume three things:

    1. that voters are rational actors rather than emotional beings,

    2. that voters are trying to influence this cycle. (If enough people withhold their vote, Dems will nominate someone better next time)

    3. that voting for the lesser of two evils is always the right thing to do. (Do you vote for 99% Hitler to avoid 100% Hitler? How about 40% Trump to avoid real Trump? Where’s that line?)

    You can debate the merits of each of those, and the degree to which they apply in this case, but you need to also recognize that there are (oftentimes bad faith) actors trying to sell the other side of each of those.

    I expect a very tight campaign, and this is a fault line in the party, especially with younger voters, that will be exploited to its fullest, by third party candidates acting possibly in good faith, and Russian interference trying to depress Democratic turnout and elect Trump.

    I’m not planning on voting for Biden. I live in Washington State, and he doesn’t need my vote to win the state, so I can harmlessly indulge in a tiny protest of leaving the top of the ballot empty. If he needed my vote, I would probably give it to him.

  6. Not the IT Dept. says:


    In this situation, your claim is incorrect. Netanyahu is a short-sighted jerk and one who has a record of bad calls regarding America.

    As for “…since murder and annihilation is the decades long Palestinian position…”, I call BS on that kind of propaganda.

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    Israel has made Biden come off like a Facebook Grandparent, and it’s probably affecting less engaged young voters who see what I see. You can’t watch what seems to be a video of an Israeli sniper killing a Palestinian taking an aid package which has dropped from the air and square that with the old-time version Israel that Biden is putting out there. It just doesn’t work. These videos are everywhere, and they are not restricted to the deeply engaged.

    I’m guessing that the people who are deeply engaged and who can tell you about Zionist settlers taking Palestinian are way more (except in Michigan) likely to end up voting for Biden than the people who are like encountering the conflict for the first time and who are flirting with Trump because Biden supports genocide. Biden should have seen this coming. Israel has been completely unsympathetic for a long time. The country has driven away young Jewish people in America and now they’re doing the same to young people in general. A real magic touch.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    In this situation, your claim is incorrect. Netanyahu is

    Can you point to one significant slow down in settlements, land confiscation etc, since the assassination of Rabin? Remember, Netanyahu was not in power for that whole time.

    I call BS on that kind of propaganda

    Since the rejection by Arafat of the (flawed) two state solution on the table, has there been a serious effort by the Palestinians to achieve peace? Or has it been an endless string of missiles, murders, and rapes.

  9. charontwo says:


    he doesn’t need my vote to win the state, so I can harmlessly indulge in a tiny protest of leaving the top of the ballot empty.

    And if a lot of people use the same reasoning?

    And, by the time the next election comes along, no one will remember and Biden will be retired.

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    As for “…since murder and annihilation is the decades long Palestinian position…”, I call BS on that kind of propaganda.

    You call it BS, but the Israeli public, mostly, appears to interpret the meaning of the October 7 festivities that way. Maybe not all Palestinians but enough to have control.

  10. Kylopod says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    One of the advantages of a parliamentary system is that leaders can be replaced without an election, although one is usually held soon afterwards to ratify the new leadership.

    A few weeks ago when Netanyahu was being interviewed by an American outlet (CNN, I think), he objected to Schumer’s speech by saying it wasn’t an American politician’s place to demand an election in Israel, and it would be as if, after 9/11, an Israeli politician called for new elections in the USA.

    It sounded like Netanyahu didn’t understand how the American electoral system works. But that’s hard to believe given that he was largely raised and educated in the US. In any case, for better or worse the American public didn’t blame Bush for 9/11 and he became extremely popular in its immediate aftermath. If hypothetically there’d been a new presidential election in Dec. 2001, it’s a safe bet he’d have won overwhelmingly. That’s very much not the case regarding Bibi and Oct. 7. The reason he doesn’t want new elections is he knows he’ll lose–which would probably spell for him not just the end of his political career, but his legal protection.

    I’ve talked to some people about these weird comments of his, and they thought he understands perfectly well that in the USA you can’t just hold new elections any time or easily replace a president the way you can with a PM, he was just making a bad analogy. But it’s hard for me to imagine even Bibi’s greatest apologists in the US making this sort of argument. (Indeed, they’re much likelier not to understand how a parliamentary system works.) Even though the interview was conducted in English, I almost felt like he was aiming his comments at an Israeli audience and playing on their ignorance of the institutional differences between their government and ours.

  11. becca says:

    @Gustopher: Biden needs every vote now. America needs a democracy mandate and that’s achieved by people actually voting for one. I’m unpleasantly surprised at your nonchalance about that.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    It might have been helpful if the campus Left had not freaked out and started screaming ‘genocide,’ like the overly-emotional, historically-ignorant and strategically clueless ninnies they are. But top priority is always the virtue signaling. It’s one of the privileges of youth, I suppose, to demand impossible things, cry when they can’t have a pony and never, ever admit they were wrong to ask for it in the first place. Harder to excuse grown-ups who should have known better.

    Biden has done everything he could and should do. Criticisms of him are clueless. Here were the Left’s demands:

    1) Ceasefire now! Did that. Changed nothing.
    2) Allow a UN resolution, now! Did that, didn’t matter.
    3) Warn Netanyahu, now! Did that, and. . . nothing.

    Now it’s stop sending Israel arms, now! (It’s always now!) Which would have two effects: humiliate and weaken Biden when Congress steamrolled over him. And doom aid to Ukraine since aid to Israel what Biden is leveraging to squeeze that out of Congress.

    We have people who think BDS is foreign policy. Oh, and free Tibet, too! Now! A real bunch of chess players, able to think almost one move ahead. Now because they didn’t get (now!) what they were never going to get, they want to shit all over abortion rights and trans rights (now!) and write off American democracy because they’re pissy. Brilliant. (Now!)

  13. JKB says:

    Well, this is mostly popcorn time for those who aren’t Democrat or support Biden. The Israel waffle is entirely an internal issue to try to keep the Democrat coalitions from sitting out the election. A dilemma, both options have a cost. Keep pressuring Israel to leave mass murderers in power in Gaza to curry favor of the Muslim (really Islamist, as many Muslims understand the threat of Hamas) vote in Michigan or try to keep the longtime Democrat party powerbrokers who affection for Israel from moving their influence elsewhere. Neither are likely to go to Trump, but then this is a dissipation problem rather than a defection problem for Biden.

    Yesterday was the 6 month anniversary of the Hamas initiated, but Gazans joined in rape and massacre of October 7, 2023. The one year mark hits just about 1 month before the election, right in the midst of early voting getting started.

    Chicago is not that far from Michigan so the protests at the Dem convention should be lit.

  14. Gustopher says:

    @becca: If Biden is close enough in Washington State for my vote to remotely matter, he has lost every swing state.

    Because of the electoral college, I can flippantly vote my whims, and remain “pure,” without any consequence. There is no harm.

    My secret hope that will never happen is for Biden to win the electoral college, but lose the popular vote, so we have pressure from both sides to scrap the electoral college.

    ETA: Also, it annoys the people I find annoying. I’m less into “vote blue no matter who” and more into “vote as strategically as you need to”. It’s not as catchy, but it’s better.

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We have people who think BDS is foreign policy.

    Worked in South Africa.

  16. Andy says:

    It’s a big country of 330 million people. There are going to be a lot of people for whom this is the most salient issue. Some will be on Israel’s side, and some will be on the other side.

    My guess is that it won’t be a huge factor, but every vote counts. It’s important to remember, though, that there are two sides here – if he’s too appeasing to the pro-Palestianian/anti-Israel crowd, then he’s going to alienate pro-Israel voters and vice versa. Biden is trying to thread the needle.

    How it all breaks down really isn’t knowable, but I doubt the war will still be going in November. Netanyahu will almost certainly be gone by then. Assuming there is some kind of ceasefire, the lack of fighting means the media will move on to other things. Still, Biden’s team should probably hedge in Michigan and work harder to get votes elsewhere in case the anti-Israel faction decides to stay home.

  17. becca says:

    @Gustopher: swing and a miss.

  18. DK says:


    Remember, Netanyahu was not in power for that whole time.

    Netanyahu was already head of Likud, leader of the opposition, and leader of the Israeli right when he organized the rallies the incited Rabin’s assasination in 1995. Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister began in 1996. He was Israel’s UN rep during Reagan’s presidency. Bibi’s been shaping Israeli policy for 40+ years, he and Joe Biden go way back.

    Will Biden’s closeness with Netanyahu hurt him (aka hurt Western democracy) in November? Yes and no.

    Yes, because it gives privileged white leftists a coherent excuse to pretend to care while throwing blacks, gays, women, the environment, the working class etc. under the bus as they love to do.

    No, because if it wasn’t Israel they would have come up with some other, more stupid excuse as they always do. After all, protest voters preferred having a rightwing Supreme Court to Hillary’s feminist and DEI nominees because something something Wall Street speeches something something emails.

    So Berniebros and Michigan Muslims are well within their rights to prefer an unleashed Trump-Netanyahu alliance to Biden’s carrots and sticks. Elections have consequences. The final solution of Trump/Kushner + Bibi/Ben-Gvir will make sure none of us ever have to hear about Palestine again, except when reading about history’s greatest atrocities.

    Anyway, are we any closer to passing Ukraine aid this week?

  19. Sleeping Dog says:

    Short of thousands of US troops conducting large scale combat operations in the ME, US voters, in general, aren’t going to choose a president over ME policy.