Democrats Divided Over Israel : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden has offered strong support for Israel in its war against Hamas, even traveling to the country to show the United States' commitment to Israel's defense. But that stance has some Democrats sharply critical of the Biden administration for not focusing enough on the war's impacts on Palestinians — something that might be a problem as the president campaigns for reelection.

This episode: voting correspondent Ashley Lopez, political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

The podcast is edited by Casey Morell. It is produced by Elena Moore and Jeongyoon Han. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Democrats Divided Over Israel

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CHUCK: Hi, this is Chuck (ph) from Portland, Ore. I'm currently knee-deep in the Pacific Ocean...


CHUCK: ...After a run alongside a Hawaiian sunrise on Oahu. This podcast was recorded at...


12:05 p.m. Central Time on Wednesday, November 1, 2023.

CHUCK: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, and I'll be back to the weather reality of the beautiful Pacific Northwest.


CHUCK: Here's the show.


LOPEZ: Ooh, it must be so cold, though, in the Pacific. I don't know.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Maybe not in Hawaii right now.

LOPEZ: Maybe it's 'cause, like, I'm from the Caribbean.



LOPEZ: Yeah. Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover voting.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: The war between Israel and Hamas is dividing public opinion. And for Democrats in particular, the debate between arming Israel and providing for its defense versus supporting Palestinians caught in the crossfire is causing some division. Danielle, I wonder if you could start off with telling us what's causing Democrats in particular to split here.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So yes, what you're seeing is some disagreement among Democrats about how to respond to this. For example, you have a lot of people on the sort of progressive end of the Democratic Party, largely, calling for a cease-fire in the conflict right now versus - you have some older people and some more moderate people in the party who much more strongly support Israel and want the U.S. to, as it has for quite a while, continue to quite strongly support Israel.

So the splits here are quite a bit about generational splits, also ideological splits, and there are a lot of reasons for that that we can get into in a bit here. But also, there is one other thing to really look at, and that's also political divisions between Israel and the U.S. For example, Israel has been led largely by conservatives for the past few decades, and for U.S. observers who are particularly attuned to that conflict and to the politics of Israel. The right-leaning nature of Israel, especially Benjamin Netanyahu, might be pushing them in a more sympathetic direction towards Palestinians.

And furthermore, there was some really high-profile conflict between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. They had quite a bit of friction over the years, and that probably did not enamor many Democrats towards Netanyahu as well.

LOPEZ: I guess we should also, like, just be clear that, at least right now, support for Israel is a bipartisan issue, right? It's - the U.S., famously, was the first country to recognize the state of Israel as a sovereign country. But the division among Democrats is very intense. I mean, I wonder where - like, what groups you find this friction most evident - like, what parts of the coalition.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, and also to go along with the question you just asked, we should also...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Differentiate between - immediately after the Hamas attack upon Israel, there was widespread bipartisan...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Just so much sympathy for Israel, understandably, after that truly brutal attack. But what we're getting at here is more a longer-standing thing that we have seen in polls of a greater willingness to criticize Israel and to criticize the U.S.' very strong, long ties to Israel over the years. And we're also seeing that right now, in recent days - a willingness to criticize how the U.S. is responding to this conflict.

And so to answer your question, we had a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that asked if the U.S. should publicly support Israel, do nothing or criticize Israel. Nonwhite people were less likely than whites to say support Israel, and also young people were less likely to say the U.S. should publicly support Israel. And in multiple questions that have asked about that, we see those divisions over and over. Nonwhite people and young people in particular seem to have quite a bit of sympathy for the Palestinians and also have a greater willingness to be critical of Israel.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And Franco, I wonder how much this is affecting the Biden folks and, like, how cognizant they are of the split among Democrats. I mean, obviously, they're seeing people protest outside the White House, so it's sort of hard to ignore. But the - is this actually influencing how they decide to craft policy?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think there's no question that the White House is paying attention, that President Biden is paying attention. You know, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, was asked about this several times yesterday, and she said that, you know, this is clearly something that the president is watching and is concerned about - how people feel the president is doing his job and the work he's doing. And look, you know, the president has staked a huge part of his legacy on how he's handled, you know...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: ...Global crises like this - whether it's Israel, uniting NATO, Ukraine. During his campaign, he talked about returning U.S. global leadership. He traveled to Israel, the second war zone in a matter of months. I mean, he's really personally invested. And he's also - you know, because of that, there is so much that's happening, you know, behind the scenes. You know, he sent U.S. officials to Israel in hopes of - that they could advise, you know, the Israeli government and look for alternatives to a ground invasion. They've pushed Israel to stop bombing near the Rafah gate. That's the gate on the border with Egypt, which allows for aid to go - to come in and more recently allowed for some people to get out.

You know, he's also sent, you know, his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, there three times, you know, pushing for a humanitarian pause. You know, Jake Sullivan and other members of the administration, top aides, have been warning Israel and talking behind the scenes and making sure that, you know, the targets that they have are legitimate targets, not like hospitals. That's pertinent because one of those warnings came as Israel was warning a hospital in Gaza to kind of be emptied out.

LOPEZ: Yeah, and how the Biden administration talks about this is really important. And I wonder if you've gotten a sense of how Biden, his own messaging has changed here.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, there has definitely been a shift in how Biden has talked about it as the crisis has unfolded, as the images have kind of crossed over, you know, the TV waves and things have gotten worse and worse. I mean, in the beginning, Biden threw unequivocal support behind Israel. He didn't even mention Gaza for, like, a week, definitely several days. But as things have worsened, as the public has, you know, heard more and more cases of tragedy in Gaza, more horrific scenes, Biden has really calibrated that messaging more and more.

He's talked a lot more about protecting civilians. He has talked more about kind of warning Israel to do more to help Palestinians, messaging that the vast majority of Palestinians are not supporters of Hamas. Now, he's still throwing that unambiguous support behind Israel, but he is also expressing more caution. You know, but always, always, the first message that he delivers, and the last one, is that the United States is solidarity with Israel. And he always makes that clear.

LOPEZ: OK, let's take a quick break, and we'll be back in a second.


LOPEZ: And we're back. Franco, I want to pivot to look at this from the 2024 perspective. Young voters, who obviously trend more Democratic, are also more skeptical, as Danielle noted, about supporting Israel, especially in a military sense. Does the Biden campaign worry that their actions here could actually alienate these voters that they need to win over?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, he's got to be concerned about these voters.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: So the groups that were speaking at here are mostly young, they're people of color. It is one of the most ascending groups of the Democratic Party. I mean, if you just look at the Democrats on Capitol Hill, the members of Congress, you have the old guard. Most of the Democrats are largely on the same page with Biden, strong, strong support for Israel. But the more vocal members of the progressive wing of the party, you know, they who represent, you know, a lot of minority ethnic communities, they're the ones who are kind of speaking out more, raising concerns about Israel, speaking more for the Palestinians.

And I think there is no question that electoral politics is something that, you know, Biden and the Biden campaign are taking into account because of those reasons. But I do want to note that Biden has an immediate crisis, and he has a crisis, you know, looking ahead in November. And if he doesn't address the crisis now, you know, he's going to have a much bigger one in a year, because if Israel is still bombing Gaza next November, it's going to be a lot bigger deal than what's going on right now.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: And I think that's part of his strategy as well in that how he has approached this with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he's taken, for example, a lot different approach than former President Barack Obama, who kind of had a more confrontational approach with Netanyahu. And there was more friction. But Israel, in some aspects, rebelled. And I think Biden is trying a different approach, kind of - he talks a lot about solidarity with Israel, thinking that there's more power in building trust in order to affect change that he's hoping for, such as a humanitarian pause.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. And when we're talking about those young voters that Franco was talking about, it's really important to understand that this is not just an isolated issue for them. It's not simply that they look at this as this one little foreign policy thing over here. This is about a full set of values and a full progressive worldview.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: As one expert I talked to noted that a lot of young progressives see the treatment of Palestinians by Israel over the years, not just in this conflict, as a form of systemic oppression. For example, the way that Israel has treated Palestinians legally, the fact that Palestinians in Gaza have had very heavy restrictions on their movement for quite some time, on their ability to travel. And so they see the struggle of Palestinians as being analogous to the struggle of, for example, Black or Indigenous people in the U.S. And for more on that, I highly recommend people look up a piece by our colleague Hansi Lo Wang from 2021 about the connections between Black Lives Matter and the pro-Palestinian cause. There's really a lot there in the lens of systemic oppression and the way that that affects how people view this conflict.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And, Danielle, I wonder if these factions of the Democratic Party don't feel heard. This could be one of those issues where particularly young voters and voters of color are almost taken for granted by Democrats, right? And even though they may not align with President Biden on everything, it's still more than what they align with Republican presidential nominees on, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Sure, yes. And, I mean, it could be an issue where young voters are taken for granted by Democrats. It also could be an issue that a lot of them hadn't been thinking about as much until this conflict erupted.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: But the danger here - you're right - is not necessarily that those voters are going to stray to Donald Trump or Nikki Haley or DeSantis or whoever the Republican nominee is, the danger is that they stay home.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm thinking about this data from Tufts University on the youth vote in 2020. In 2020, half of 18- to 29-year-olds voted. That was a big jump from 2016, when 39% voted. That shows that the youth vote is quite changeable, it has the capacity to really go up or go down. And young voters have largely voted for Democrats. And so knowing that that kind of volatility could exist, if you're Joe Biden, of course, you don't want to do anything to threaten the number of those young voters who are going to come out the door to vote.

ORDOÑEZ: And Biden already has challenges with low enthusiasm numbers with his base.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: In the critical states of Pennsylvania and Michigan, small numbers can have a very, very big influence in these important battleground states. That said, there's a calculation being made. Will these voters not show up at the polls? Is this cause for them, or at least this moment for them, significant enough?

LOPEZ: Yeah, and I guess it's a timing issue - right? - because ultimately, and we should point out, it is November 2023. We're still more than a year out from the election. And I guess I wonder, either of you, like, do you think this issue will be weighing heavily on voters' minds come Election Day 2024?

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, who knows, right? I mean, it very much depends upon whether there's a cease-fire, that sort of thing.

LOPEZ: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: But there's also the question of what this data point does for voters, how it fits into the broader story image of Joe Biden they have in their minds. For example, if you're a voter who generally likes him, generally agrees with his approach to this conflict, you might come to Election Day and think, oh - see? - Joe Biden's great. And I remember that Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he handled so well, so of course I'm going to vote for him.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Similarly, this is one thing you can look back at if you dislike how he's reacting to this conflict as well. And you might think, oh, yeah, I don't know if I care for him. And remember that thing in Israel and Palestine? I don't know if I liked that either.

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: It's just a bit of evidence that you can see one way or the other, and that might reify whatever worldview you have.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I agree. I mean, again, President Biden has staked so much of his presidency, of the legacy of his first term on handling these kind of crises, to be a leader on the global stage. And depending on what happens, really, in the next few weeks and the next few months will likely reverberate, you know, over the next year. And it can very much have an impact on how voters see him going forward.

LOPEZ: Yeah. All right, let's leave it there for today. I'm Ashley Lopez, I cover voting.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez, I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben, I cover politics.

LOPEZ: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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