Will Biden pay the price for Gaza policy at the ballot box?

Will Biden pay the price for Gaza policy at the ballot box?

Will Biden pay the price for Gaza policy at the ballot box?
Joe Biden at the American Possibilities White House Demo Day, The Showroom, Washington, DC, Nov. 7, 2023. (AFP)
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In the wake of Israel’s military campaign against Gaza, Arab American and Muslim American groups have criticized Washington’s strong support for Tel Aviv. Crucially, other groups have joined them. Together, they have threatened not to vote to reelect President Joe Biden next year, which raises the question of whether they have sufficient political clout to affect policy.

At protests in Washington and several other US cities on Saturday, tens of thousands of people, including Muslim and Arab Americans and multiple left-wing groups, gathered to call for a ceasefire. At the rally in the capital, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that Biden and the Democratic Party understand the language of votes in the 2024 election. “And our message is: No ceasefire, no votes,” he said. The crowd also chanted, “In November, we remember” — a promise to remember Gaza when voting in November 2024.

Polling suggests that Biden’s strong support for Israel in the face of the current crisis has badly damaged his standing among Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. For example, a recent poll from the Arab American Institute found that Arab American voters’ support for Biden has dropped precipitously, from 59 percent in 2020 to 17 percent, while two-thirds have a negative view of Biden’s approach to the conflict.

The White House is aware of the criticism and has taken steps to try to reach out to Arab and Muslim Americans while not making significant changes to its foreign policy. For example, the White House last week announced that it would develop a national strategy to counter Islamophobia. While some Muslim American leaders welcomed the effort, others saw it as too little, too late.

Electoral politics are not the only driver of US policy. Biden’s support for Israel partly stems from his personal views. Many officials in his administration sincerely want to combat Islamophobia based on values as much as on winning votes. Nonetheless, the White House must also consider pragmatic electoral realities. Pro-Israel lobbying groups and voters are much more strongly established in US politics. For decades, most politicians have had more to gain from siding with pro-Israel influence groups than with any advocates for Palestinians. The question for Biden’s team now is whether that has fundamentally changed.

Historically, Muslim Americans and Arab Americans have lacked significant political influence. They are small minorities — Muslims make up about 1 percent of the US population and Arab Americans are also about 1 percent. They are relatively recent immigrant groups and it takes time for such cohorts to develop an understanding of the US political system and to coalesce into a group capable of influencing politics.

Muslim Americans and Arab Americans are diverse communities with varying interests and the Palestinian cause has not always been a priority for all of them. Yet, historically, they formed the main American constituency that was sympathetic to the Palestinians. There were always some individuals outside of the Muslim or Arab communities who were aware of and concerned about the Palestinians’ plight, but they lacked organization and faced intense pressure against speaking out. Compared to the established, experienced and well-funded pro-Israel groups, there is no pro-Palestinian equivalent.

However, Americans who feel concern for Palestinian rights are today less alone than in the past. Polls have shown that, within the Democratic Party, sympathy with the Palestinians has increased significantly in the last few years. Organized groups such as young, progressive Jewish Americans have joined to express concern for Palestinian civilians. Within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, many voters find it appalling that the US provides billions of dollars to Israel rather than spending it on domestic needs.

Many progressives apply a social justice lens to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and see Palestinians as an oppressed people. More generally, younger Americans are more keenly aware of contradictions in US foreign policy, while changes in media have made it easier for Americans to hear Palestinian voices. Saturday’s protests demonstrated that multiple groups are now coming together to call for change.

These groups know that threatening to withhold votes from Biden is a potentially effective strategy. However, a lack of viable alternatives undermines the credibility of those threats. The Republican Party is staunchly pro-Israel. As much as pro-Palestinian groups object to Biden’s support for Israel, his policies are better for Palestinians than a Republican president’s policies would be.

Arab American voters’ support for Biden has dropped precipitously, from 59 percent in 2020 to 17 percent.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

For example, after former President Donald Trump cut all aid to the Palestinians, Biden restored it. Biden’s administration is trying to help get some humanitarian aid into Gaza, while a Republican administration would be even more solidly behind whatever Israel chose to do. If American voters who care about the Palestinians choose not to vote for Biden next year, they could help elect a president with whom they have even less influence and whose policies would be even worse for the Palestinians.

On their own, Muslim American and Arab American voters lack enough political power to change Biden’s foreign policy. However, their influence is greater when combined with other groups that are willing to actively advocate for the Palestinians. Even so, the Palestinian issue alone is unlikely to damage support for Biden; rather, the real threat to Biden is that his policy toward Israel and the Palestinians could layer on top of other factors dragging down support for him, especially among younger and more progressive voters. Next year’s election is likely to be very close and Biden will need all the support he can get.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. X: @KBAresearch
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