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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

There’s still time, Mr. President

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Larry Smith

President Joe Biden’s age has been a major topic of discussion during this campaign. Recently, the President has taken to addressing the issue directly. Frankly, his age – and anything else about him – is fair game to consider as Americans prepare to go to the polls. (The caveat I would offer is that any criticism should be based on objective reality, which is a constraint to which many of his opponents do not limit themselves.)

Mr. Biden is 81; he will turn 82 shortly after the election. The plain fact is that all people begin to deteriorate physically, and sometimes mentally, if they’re blessed to become an octogenarian. Hearing loss is often among the ailments to which older people are subject. However, I am personally much less concerned about President Biden’s ability to hear than I am about his willingness to listen.  

Biden has been mired in the Israeli-Hamas war that continues to rage. Despite rumors of a potential ceasefire, there is no end in sight as of this writing. This has meant that the President has been under increasing pressure to weigh in more forcefully to bring about a resolution to the conflict. What leverage does he have? Generally speaking, Israel receives more U.S. aid than any other nation, most of which is for military purposes. (Recently, Ukraine has received more military aid than Israel has. Of course, that could easily change in the near future.)

Though such aid gives American presidents substantial influence over Israel – if they choose to exercise it – we must be sanguine about the fact that they are not the Prime Minister of that nation. Further, the nature of this war has caused the political calculus to be perhaps the trickiest that it has ever been between the U.S. and its closest ally in the Middle East.

Reasonable people do not deny that Israel had a right to defend itself by attacking Hamas following October 7th. Similarly, reasonable people do not condone the fact that roughly 30,000 Palestinians – most of whom are women and children – have been killed as a result of those attacks. Emotions about the war and its consequences have reached a boiling point, with arguments, intimidation, threats, and even physical violence erupting throughout this nation.

President Biden has been a longstanding and outspoken friend of Israel. This has remained the case even as his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he has known for four decades, has reportedly reached its nadir. As Palestinian deaths have mounted, calls for Biden to push Netanyahu for a ceasefire (if not a complete end to the war) have substantially increased. Netanyahu, whose primary consideration always appears to be his own political survival, has publicly made it clear that he will not bow to American pressure. And around we go.

Netanyahu and Biden are very conscious of their respective domestic political standing. The former could quite conceivably end up in jail once he leaves office, so he is clinging exceedingly tightly to power. The latter has to worry about a Jewish constituency that overwhelmingly supports the Democratic Party. Some of them are wary of criticism of Israel, even by people (includingBiden) who they consider to be friends. This has to be in the back of Mr. Biden’s mind at all times, especially given the closeness of the presidential race.  

Conversely, Muslim and/or Arab Americans, younger voters, progressives of all ages, and African Americans have become increasingly vocal about their support for the Palestinian people. This is where the President’s willingness to listen comes in. Given its racial, ethnic, and religious diversity – as well as the small margin of victory that both Biden and Former President Donald Trump had in that state – Michigan is perhaps ground zero for Democrats who want to send a message to President Biden ahead of a potential second term.

Specifically, the nascent “Uncommitted” movement, which is intended to warn Biden that its adherents could either vote against him or simply stay at home in November, has made a strong showing in some primary results: 13% in Michigan and North Carolina; 19% in Minnesota; and a whopping 29% in Hawaii. Those numbers could spell trouble for President Biden.

Clearly, the President has taken notice. He has ordered the military to build a floating pier off the coast of Gaza to facilitate delivery of badly needed humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Further, he is reportedly considering limiting aid to Israel if it engages in a ground invasion of Rafah, a city in Gaza to which more than one million Palestinians have fled. What remains to be seen are the ways in which Jewish Americans will react to these efforts and others.

As at least one political pundit has pointed out, Mr. Biden is going to pay a political price irrespective of the choices he makes on this issue, so he might as well do the right thing. In this case, he must take steps to ensure that Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that he is serious about withholding American aid unless Israel begins to take serious steps to address the human catastrophe that is unfolding in Gaza. That includes taking seriously the avoidance of noncombatant deaths, as well as agreeing to a firm ceasefire. It appears that the President has begun to listen.

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