WILMINGTON, Del. — President Biden’s steadfast support for Israel is facing increasing pressure as some of his staunch supporters from within his party are warning about the ways in which the Israeli response is being carried out.
Biden has resisted calls to join other Democrats who are seeking a cease-fire, and has largely avoided commenting on how Israel is carrying out a new phase in a war that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend warned “is going to be long and difficult.”
But in recent days, other Democrats have pointedly criticized the pace of humanitarian aid, a communications blackout and the rising death toll among Palestinian civilians. With one of the United States’ closest allies now steeling itself for a potentially prolonged conflict, they also raised concerns about whether Israel has clear and achievable objectives as it conducts a major ground assault.
In one recent move, a group of more than two dozen senators, including Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), called on Biden to work with Israel, Egypt, and the United Nations to deliver fuel into Gaza amid the humanitarian crisis.
“We should support Israel’s right to defend itself. Hamas must be held accountable,” Murphy wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “But if America is going to pay for a big portion of the war’s cost, then of course we should care about the war plan. It would not be good to fund a plan that doesn’t work.”
Biden on Sunday afternoon spoke with Netanyahu for the first time since Israel expanded its ground operations in Gaza, and the president, according to the White House, “underscored the need to immediately and significantly increase the flow of humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of civilians in Gaza.”
The criticisms from those within his party are creating new challenges for Biden, who has so closely aligned with Israel and its right to retaliate that he runs the risk of being held responsible for how it carries out its response. Administration officials say that they are holding Israel accountable — and that they share some of the same concerns that their fellow Democrats have raised — but are often conducting some of the tense diplomacy in private.
“We have pressed them on questions like objectives and matching means to objectives, about both tactical and strategic issues associated with this operation,” Jake Sullivan, U.S. national security adviser, said on CNN during one of several interviews on Sunday shows. “But we have done all of that behind closed doors. So I’m not going to characterize here today the specific nature of those conversations.”
He acknowledged that the situation on the ground was complex. “Hamas is going out of its way to make this more difficult. They are hiding among, integrating among those civilians and turning those civilians into human shields,” he said, but he added that it did not absolve Israel of the responsibility to avoid civilian casualties.
“The Israeli government should be taking every possible means available to them to distinguish between Hamas terrorists, who are legitimate military targets, and civilians, who are not,” Sullivan said.
Still, Sullivan largely avoided commenting on whether he believes that the Israeli government is doing so. He also made clear that it was ultimately the responsibility of the Israelis, not Americans.
“We will continue to talk to our Israeli counterparts. We’ll continue to ask hard questions about how they are thinking this through, how they are proceeding,” he said on ABC News. “But, ultimately, these are their decisions. This is their action, and they’re best postured to be able to answer questions about how it’s proceeding.”
According to the White House readout of the call between Biden and Netanyahu, the leaders spoke about Gaza and the efforts to release hostages, including American citizens who remain unaccounted for and may be held by Hamas.
“The President reiterated that Israel has every right and responsibility to defend its citizens from terrorism and underscored the need to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law that prioritizes the protection of civilians,” according to the summary of the call.
Biden also spoke on Sunday with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi about trying to accelerate assistance into Gaza. “They also discussed the importance of protecting civilian lives, respect for international humanitarian law, and ensuring that Palestinians in Gaza are not displaced to Egypt or any other nation,” according to the White House.
In the statement from the 25 senators, they focused on getting fuel into Gaza to help ensure hospitals can treat patients and water pumping stations can provide drinkable water.
Murphy also warned that a drawn-out ground conflict could benefit Hamas, and he also questions what would fill the vacuum if the network were eliminated, given that Hamas currently provides government services.
“It feels pretty likely that a long, open-ended Israeli operation — like our disastrous campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan — that cuts off fuel and water and internet and results in widespread civilian harm will create as many Hamas militants as it eliminates,” he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who also signed onto the statement, said Saturday night that he was “deeply concerned” about the severing of communications in Gaza.
“There already is a dire humanitarian situation, including dangerous proximity to military operations for civilians and insufficient amounts of food, water, medicine, and fuel,” he wrote on X.
“For the more than 2 million Gazans to not be able to communicate with one another or the outside world risks a further spiraling of the crisis — hampering the critical work of aid groups and journalists on the ground,” he added. “I urge immediate restoration of full communications.”
Israel shut off communications to Gaza on Friday, creating a near-total blackout that cut Palestinians from the rest of the world. The communications partly returned on Sunday and the United States pressured the Israeli government to switch them back on, according to a senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Mich.), a liberal ally who has backed Biden’s reelection bid, said that she is worried that Biden risks being out of step with the broader American electorate, and losing support among the younger voters that he needs to mobilize for his reelection.
“He has been courageous on the domestic front,” Jayapal said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” “The president needs to be just as courageous on this issue.”
“I am certainly concerned about his approach to this,” she added. “I want President Biden to be the next president and he needs to call us to a higher moral place.”
Jayapal’s comments about Israel have garnered criticism in the past, particularly this summer when she called Israel a “racist state.” She later walked back that statement, saying she meant some of the people and policies of Netanyahu’s government were racist.
On Sunday, Jayapal voiced concerns that Biden’s position on the current fighting in Gaza could ultimately hurt him politically at home.
“He is, I think, going to be challenged to explain an issue of this moral significance to people,” she said. “The American people are actually quite far away from where the president and even Congress, the majority of Congress, has been on Israel and Gaza.”
“They support the right for Israel to defend itself, to exist. But they do not support a war crime exchanged for another war crime. And I think the president has to be careful about that.”
A new Gallup survey indicated some of the challenges Biden faces in shoring up support from members of his own party. His job approval rating among Democrats fell by 11 percentage points in the past month, resulting in the worst assessment from his own party since he took office.
In the survey, which was conducted Oct. 2 to Oct. 23, some 75 percent of Democrats approve of the job he’s doing. That steep drop from members of his own party put his overall approval rating at 37 percent, a drop of four points to match his personal low.
Gallup noted that while the survey is not designed to provide statistically reliable estimates during its three-week polling period, the daily results “strongly suggest that Democrats’ approval of Biden fell sharply in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and Biden’s promise of full support for Israel on the same day.”
Gallup also found earlier this year that, for the first time, sympathies among Democrats for Palestinians had outpaced those for Israelis. That March survey found that among Democrats, 49 percent said their sympathies in the Middle East were more with Palestinians, compared with 38 percent who said Israelis.
Devlin Barrett in Washington and Claire Parker in Cairo contributed to this report.