May 20, 2024

There’s no need to accept the churlish narrative of Biden and the establishment. The administration’s shift on Israel is a gain that can—and must—be built on.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag from the roof of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University on April 30, 2024. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

It’s perfectly understandable why the establishment is trying to minimize the impact of the burgeoning anti-war and pro-Palestinian movement. What is less obvious is why many on the left are almost equally inclined to be dismissive of the fact that popular protests have forced the hand of a president who touts his unwavering Zionism and “love” of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since the October 7 attacks by Hamas, Joe Biden’s bear hug strategy has given Israel a virtual license to kill in Gaza and the West Bank, with the United States providing both diplomatic and military aid to Netanyahu’s government. The occasional criticism Biden and his administration directed toward Israel’s massive killing of civilians was always vague, usually private—and obviously pro forma.

As CNN reported last Sunday, “Biden’s warning in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett that he’d halt some weapons shipments to Israel if it invades the Gazan city of Rafah marks the most direct US attempt to rein in its ally in a national security crisis since the Reagan administration, and the first significant conditioning of American military assistance since the start of the war.”

In that same interview, Biden was asked if he heard the message of student protesters across America who are outraged at his indifference to Palestinian suffering. Biden at first responded with a small gesture of reconciliation, saying, “Absolutely, I hear the message.” But the president also added:

“There is a legitimate right to free speech and protest. There’s a legitimate right to do that and they have a right to do that. But there’s not a legitimate right to use hate speech. There’s not a legitimate right to threaten Jewish students. There is not a legitimate right to block people’s access to class. That’s against the law.”

The burden of Biden’s rhetoric was clearly anti-student. It was also narrow-minded and dishonest—with the hyperbolic invocation of antisemitism and violence now familiar distraction tactics used to marginalize any discussion of Palestinian suffering. Though there have been antisemitic incidents, in almost every case these have come from isolated individuals. They don’t reflect the broader anti-war movement. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of protests have been peaceful. Moreover, Biden has had nothing to say about the bigotry of some pro-Israel counterprotesters, nor the violence of police.

Hillary Clinton—who is likely to be a top Biden surrogate in the election—was equally hostile to the student protesters. On Thursday, she told MSNBC host Joe Scarborough: “I have had many conversations, as you have had, with a lot of young people over the last many months now. They don’t know very much at all about the history of the Middle East, or frankly about history, in many areas of the world, including in our own country.” Clinton’s comments were politically obtuse—it makes no sense to insult young people, an important part of the Democratic Party coalition. They were also false on their own terms—one supposed true fact of history Clinton invoked, the alleged Palestinian rejection of a supposedly generous offer negotiated by her husband, is a self-serving myth (debunked by a leading former diplomat in Bill Clinton’s administration).

It’s no mystery why Biden and allies like Clinton are eager to continue denigrating protesters, especially if they are young. The failure of Biden’s bear hug strategy is a huge embarrassment to the bipartisan elite. It’s as big a disaster as the Iraq War, an earlier fiasco that both Biden and Hillary Clinton eagerly supported. So even as Biden slowly and grudgingly moves towards the position of the protesters, he is loath to admit that they were the ones who forced the change. Acknowledging that fact would cause Biden (and his allies) to lose face, to make evident that their vaunted foreign policy expertise is nearly worthless and that dissenters are often right.

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Oddly, some on the left are also trying to downplay the impact of Biden’s moves against Israel, on the argument that it is too little too late (a familiar refrain that had great validity in the past).

As The New York Times noted on Saturday:

Biden’s announcement that he had paused a shipment of 3,500 bombs to Israel and would not help with a ground invasion of Rafah was a sea change in U.S. policy that Arab American and Muslim leaders have demanded for months. But those who desired it the most have long ago written off the administration as complicit in a war that Gaza officials say has killed more than 34,000 people, arguing it was, essentially, too little, too late.

Abbas Alawieh, who has organized voters to put pressure on Biden in the primaries, told the Times, “The president’s announcement is extremely overdue and horribly insufficient. He needs to come out against this war. Period. That would be significant.”

On the one level, “too little too late” is obviously true. Biden should have come out against Israel the moment it became clear (soon after the current onslaught began) that this was a war of revenge being waged against civilians. And Biden could indeed do much more to stop Israel’s carnage, including withholding diplomatic protection at the United Nations.

But denigrating this sea change runs the risk of undermining the great historical achievement of the anti-war and pro-Palestinian movement. Biden’s shift is proof that protesting is working and needs to be ramped up. It would be better to claim the victory. The left has won a few crucial yards on the battlefield, and while small it is also a gain that can be built on.

Palestinian American writer Yousef Munayyer hit the right note in saying:

I think that for months, Biden, a committed Zionist no doubt, has been either in denial about or mislead about how devastating his Israel policy could be for his election chances. The student uprising that swept campuses across the country made it undeniable. Keep it up.

Claiming a victory is a way of building confidence to make more demands. Biden and the political elite don’t want the left to claim a victory in the debate because they don’t want more demands to be made. Refusing to claim the victory only gives the establishment what it wants.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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