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Storm Clouds

Biden Needs to Change His Israel Policy Fast

The high “uncommitted” vote in the Michigan primary should worry the president—but there’s something he can do about it.

Biden at the White House
Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Biden at the White House on Wednesday

Monday, I wrote a column that we headlined, “Biden Will Win Michigan Easily. It May Also Show His Weakness.” Like all pundits, I get a lot of stuff wrong, but Tuesday night’s results proved that one right. I did some guesstimating about how large the “uncommitted” vote would be. I wrote that 60,000 would get the White House’s attention, and that 100,000 “would attract tons of notice.”

That notice is happening. “Uncommitted” got almost exactly 100,000 votes, out of around 750,000 cast. It’s a very clear message of disapproval (that’s putting it mildly for a lot of people) of President Biden’s policy toward Israel. According to Steve Kornacki, “uncommitted” beat Biden in the city of Dearborn. So how should the White House respond?

Look—the election is eight months away. Some people saying today that they’ll never vote for Biden will stay true to that word. For them, it was all over when Biden embraced Bibi Netanyahu. It was over when the Biden administration cast doubt on the death toll. Maybe the Hamas-run Health Ministry was exaggerating the numbers; but really, that’s the fight you need to be having, while children are dying?

But eight months is a long time. If the reality of November is markedly different, Biden can win a substantial number of these voters back. But he needs to do some tough things to make that reality different.

The United States needs to broker an end to this war that includes the safe return of Israeli hostages and the end of mass slaughter. Israel, however, is talking about going in the opposite direction. This impending offensive in Rafah could be a complete humanitarian disaster. Gaza’s southernmost city, it has already swelled to four times its normal population with refugees from the north. Families are living in tents. World leaders are warning of “catastrophic consequences” if Israel invades.

It may happen after Ramadan, which starts March 10 and lasts for a month. Maybe, before then, Biden can force Israel to stand down from that plan. But if Israel follows through, there’ll be huge pressure on the Biden administration to start attaching conditions to its aid. Big majorities either “strongly” or “somewhat” support various conditions on aid to Israel, according to a new poll from Data for Progress.

Imagine Israel doing in Rafah what it’s already done to other Gaza cities and the Biden administration continuing billions of dollars of aid without conditions? That would be a political disaster for Biden—certainly in Michigan, a state he absolutely cannot lose, and arguably beyond. (Incidentally, it’s worth noting that the “uncommitted” campaign is being carried to other states.)

He will also need to start pushing Netanyahu out the door. Netanyahu will ignore this as long as he can. He wants to wait out the U.S. election and hope that his buddy Donald Trump wins, because Trump will green-light absolutely anything Israel wants to do with no lectures or questions. Biden at least needs to be seen as calling for a new Israel government and for movement toward a two-state solution.

This will be a big change for Biden personally. He’s still attached to the romantic Zionism of his younger years. That worldview was surely reinforced by the savagery of what Hamas did on October 7, and reasonably so. But then the Gaza deaths mounted. Today, Biden’s brand of Zionism is well out of step with where his party is, and not just Arab American and younger voters. Mainstream Democratic voters detest Netanyahu and want a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Biden needs to see that Zionism does not mean reflexive support of whatever a radical right-wing Israeli government does. And importantly, he needs to see that this is not a foreign policy issue to younger voters in his party—it’s a social justice issue.

Any moves Biden makes along these lines will sit quite poorly with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Maybe you can argue that AIPAC was once where the median Democratic voter was. That isn’t true today. Democrats, and most swing voters too, want a middle-of-the-road Israeli government that will talk peace. By the way, they want a Palestinian Authority that will do the same. Team Biden also needs to get Mahmoud Abbas out of the picture, a process that seems to have started this week.   

In sum: Yes, the “uncommitted” campaign was successful enough that Biden needs to listen and act. He has the time to change. The question is whether he has the personal capacity to.

On the Republican side, people are saying that the fact that more than a quarter of voters chose the hopeless Nikki Haley bodes ill for Trump. I’m not convinced. I haven’t seen Michigan exit polls. The number so often cited from the New Hampshire exit polls, that 35 percent of Republican voters said they would not vote for Trump in November, was eye-catching. But will that really hold true?

The 2016 GOP race is instructive. Trump rolled through the primaries—right? Wrong. Guess what percentage of primary votes he won. Seventy? Sixty? Try 45 percent. Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio got the lion’s share of the rest. But in November, the vast majority of those voters went with their nominee, because a Republican they dislike or even loathe is still better than a Democrat in the White House.

I think most Democratic voters will revert to the mean too. But here’s the difference between the two sides. There’s pressure on Biden to change a major policy position. There’s no similar pressure on Trump. Put another way, Biden faces a specific source of disgruntlement from part of his base, and Trump faces a general grumpiness from part of his. On the one hand, that gives Biden more agency because a specific source of dissatisfaction can be addressed. On the other, it means he really has to do it.