The Middle East is going to start getting more complicated for Joe Biden this week. In the aftermath of Hamas’s monstrous attacks on October 7, and given everything we learned about their savagery, it was simple enough for Biden and other world leaders to say emphatically that we stand with Israel and support its right to defend itself.
So far, Americans have been broadly sympathetic with Israel, as we’d expect. CNN released a poll Sunday morning showing 70 percent of respondents agreeing that Israel’s response to the attacks is fully or partially justified. Only 8 percent said not at all justified. That poll was conducted last Thursday and Friday.
This week, though, the focus is likely to turn, at least in part, from the crimes of Hamas to Israel’s offensive, as Israeli tanks line up and prepare for a massive ground incursion into Gaza. The size of the call-up, 360,000 reservists, is unprecedented in four decades.
We’ll continue to learn new details about the horrendous nature of what Hamas did. But in time, those revelations will probably be overpowered by new ones about Israel’s operation. Biden will face increasing pressure to be critical of any examples of retributive aggression—a reflection of the changing perceptions in recent years of Israel among Democrats and even many independents.
The number of Palestinian dead is already greater than the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas. In addition, over the weekend, as Israeli officials said things like “You wanted hell, we will give you hell,” there were numerous calls for Israel to allow a humanitarian corridor to ensure Gazans access to food, water, and medical care (the Israel Defense Forces did start supplying water to southern Gaza Sunday). Biden made such a call Saturday night at a human rights dinner in Washington. Also, the White House, in describing the fifth call between Biden and Bibi Netanyahu since October 7, said that the president “affirmed his support for all efforts to protect civilians.”
NBC News reported over the weekend that Biden and other administration officials have been privately urging restraint on the Netanyahu government. Those urgings are going to have to get more public soon, I’m guessing, if U.S. public opinion turns from complete and utter sympathy for Israel over Hamas’s barbarism to impatience at Israel for what may broadly be seen as overreaction.
The reason to think this is that American views of Israel have taken a dramatic turn for the worse in just the last couple of years. This is being driven mainly by Democrats, but by no means entirely. Independents are a lot closer to Democrats than they are to Republicans.
Consider this Gallup poll from March of this year. It led with the news that for the first time, Democrats’ sympathies had shifted from Israelis to Palestinians. Back in the Obama years, it wasn’t close—in 2011, for example, the numbers were 57–24 in favor of the Israelis. By 2022, Democrats were more sympathetic to Israelis than to Palestinians by just 40–38. And by this year, the edge went to the Palestinians by a substantial 49–38—an overall 13-point swing in just a single year.
Independents are tracking far closer to Democrats than to Republicans. In this year’s Gallup poll, independents still favored the Israeli side over the Palestinian side, by 49–32. But that’s a substantial shift away from Israel just since 2022, when independent support for the Israelis was 54–26. And it’s a long way from Republican support for the Israeli side, which is polling off the charts in this year’s survey at 78–11.
In other words: Among the Americans whose votes Biden might get next November (Democrats and independents), support for the two sides in this conflict is about evenly split, with just a modest edge to the Israelis.
Even in that CNN poll, taken at a time of maximum sympathy for Israel, there are some numbers that show the limits of Americans’ sympathy. On the “fully justified” question, the overall level of support there was 50 percent, but that was fueled mainly by Republicans (68 percent), while only pluralities of independents (45 percent) and Democrats (38 percent) went along with “fully justified.”
So as this wears on, Biden won’t be able to just defend Israel and leave it at that. Moderate and liberal Americans know that what Hamas did is unspeakable. But they also know that the occupation is a horror, that Netanyahu is corrupt, and that the current Israeli government is extreme and anti-democratic. Biden must defend Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself without being seen as also defending all that. (Biden may receive an avenue for moderation from Netanyahu himself, who is under serious attack at home, where Israelis in large numbers are protesting his rule and blaming him for the assault.)
The best things Biden can do are to stand for universal values, insist that even in war there are rules, push for the release of all hostages, and try to persuade Israel, privately and publicly, to refrain from engaging in the kind of excessive response that Hamas wants it to waltz into. Israel was the victim here of a heinous mass murder, and Americans understand that this has made the world worse and are broadly unsympathetic to the perpetrators.
Their sympathy for Israel is high at the moment. But that won’t last forever. Maybe Israel will surprise us all and find a way to decimate Hamas with a brief incursion that results in fewer casualties than feared. But if, in a month’s time, Israel is seen as overreacting? Well, the reservoir of goodwill for Israel in the United States is not nearly as deep as it was 20 or 10 or, as the Gallup numbers show, even three years ago. All politics is local, and Biden, who will need young Democratic voters to flock to him next year, will stick his neck out here as far as domestic political considerations dictate.