‘People are frustrated’: Gaza war opens rift among US Democrats

From a hotel lobby in Pittsburgh, Miracle Jones had a warning for Joe Biden: the US president’s staunch backing for Israel in its war against Hamas is eroding support on the left and hurting his re-election chances in 2024.

“The White House has lost a lot of people,” said Jones, a 35-year-old progressive political activist in the western Pennsylvania city where Biden will need a strong turnout if he is to carry the swing state next year.

Jones has seen Muslim-Americans in her area mobilising to ensure “anyone but Biden” wins in 2024, while black voters fear multiple international conflicts will jeopardise domestic priorities and liberal Jewish people feel “hurt and isolated”.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of people going to non-traditional parties,” she said.

Since October 7, when Hamas launched the deadliest attack on Israeli civilians since the creation of the Jewish state — and Biden rushed to offer America’s strongest possible military and diplomatic support for its ally — the president’s approval ratings have remained essentially flat.

But beneath the surface, a rift has opened up among Democrats over the Middle Eastern conflict that is threatening to shatter the electoral coalition that helped Biden defeat Donald Trump in 2020.

Israel’s ferocious retaliatory offensive on Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas and home to 2.3mn people, has triggered outrage in the Muslim world. More than 9,400 people have been killed in the strip, according to Palestinian health officials, as Israeli forces have laid siege to and bombarded the coastal enclave. 

In the US, a Gallup poll released on October 26 showed an 11-percentage-point drop in backing for Biden among Democrats over the course of just one month, tumbling to 75 per cent from 86 per cent in September.

The Democratic split has been apparent in the Pittsburgh area. Pennsylvania’s two Democratic senators, Bob Casey and John Fetterman, have remained in line with the White House and backed Israel in its response to the Hamas attack.

“I think a lot of people in the community feel that Israel needs to defend itself,” said David Feldstein, the owner of the Bagel Factory in the largely Jewish neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill. “No matter what you do both sides are losing, I don’t think it’s a win-win situation for anybody but if you’re going to go in and slaughter some of the Jewish people, something has to be done or it will continue forever.”

Jill Zipin, founder and chair of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, said: “I think the Jewish community is very supportive of Biden — and the Jewish community votes.”

Avigail Oren, a liberal Israeli-American academic

But Summer Lee, the progressive Democrat representing Pittsburgh in the House of Representatives, has called for a ceasefire to prevent further civilian casualties among Palestinians and allow more humanitarian assistance to be delivered.

“The only path to peace, the only path to saving more innocent Palestinian and Israeli children and hostages is de-escalation,” Lee said in a statement last month.

While the Biden administration is now endorsing “pauses” in the hostilities to allow more aid to Gaza and negotiate the release of hostages, it believes that a full-blown halt to Israel’s assault will benefit Hamas.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic congresswoman from California and former House Speaker, acknowledged that Biden was taking “a little hit” due to his Israel position, but she still backed him. “I think the president is correct in what he is doing. But it’s not without its cost. And that is called courage.”

Other influential Democrats in Congress have distanced themselves from the White House position.

Rashida Tlaib, a progressive lawmaker from Michigan, accused Biden of supporting the genocide of Palestinians.

“Mr President, the American people are not with you on this one,” Tlaib said in a video. “We will remember in 2024.”

Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, told CNN he thought it was time for a ceasefire. “An effort should be made to engage in conversation between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, asked Israel to “reconsider its approach and shift to a more deliberate and proportionate counter-terrorism campaign”.

In Pennsylvania, emotions surrounding the conflict between Israel and Hamas are heightened because five years ago it was the site of the worst antisemitic attack in US history, when a white supremacist shot and killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

Last week, antisemitic graffiti was found in the local park, and police have increased patrols. “People are more on edge,” said Feldstein.

“How can we call for a ceasefire when there are over 200 hostages being held and when Israel has a right to self-defence? What should be called for is the surrender of Hamas,” said Zipin.

Avigail Oren, a liberal Israeli-American historian in Pittsburgh, said political dynamics were shifting rapidly and the unity within the community since the synagogue attack was at risk of coming apart. She did not believe in standing by Israel “at all costs”, but she also felt “alienated” from those who refused to condemn Hamas and did not understand that Israel had a “right to exist”.

“I think that every voter in the Jewish community is currently reassessing where they were. Unless your head is buried in the sand, you have been forced to face the stakes, evaluate where politicians, decide if they are aligned with you, and if they are not what your priorities are.”

In the Muslim community in Pittsburgh, there is palpable outrage at Biden’s stance.

“We are the leader of the free world, we are the ones who are supposed to be protecting kids,” said one 41-year-old Palestinian-American tech engineer with family in Gaza, who declined to be named out of fear that his relatives could be targeted. “How many kids have to die before our president thinks that it is necessary to call a ceasefire? Is it going to take that every single member of our community swears that they are not going to vote for him?”

Biden administration officials say a majority of Democrats back their response to the conflict, adding that they have been “very direct” with Israel about its strategy in the war and the need to minimise civilian casualties.

“They have significantly refined what originally was their plan,” one senior US official told reporters on Friday.

In response to fears of defections within the party, Ammar Moussa, a Biden 2024 campaign spokesperson, said the president “knows the importance of earning the trust of every community, of upholding the sacred dignity and rights of all Americans”, in contrast with the “openly Islamophobic platform” backed by Republicans. 

With the presidential election still a year away, and foreign policy rarely topping the list of voter concerns in White House races, political operatives in Pennsylvania and nationally say it is too early to draw any firm conclusions about the outcome of the race.

In a sign of how close the contest has become, though, on Sunday the New York Times published a poll showing Trump — the likely Republican 2024 candidate — leading Biden in five of the six most important swing states.

Trump has called for reviving the so-called Muslim travel ban he instituted during his first term in the White House if he wins again, and leftwing voters may still calculate that Biden is their best option despite unhappiness over his Israel stance.

But Jones said it suddenly feels like an uphill struggle to rally voters to back Biden. “I do think that Biden might have enough votes to squeak out but there has to be serious work. It’s like we’re back in the ‘war on terror’ all over again with no lessons learned. I think that’s what people are frustrated about.”