President Joe Biden, seen speaking at a campaign rally in...

President Joe Biden, seen speaking at a campaign rally in Atlanta Saturday, faces a challenging dilemma over support for Israel. Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

As election-year politics heat up in the United States, the question of American support for Israel has become the focus of dissension, and President Joe Biden finds himself caught in a challenging dilemma. On his left, the strongly pro-Palestinian progressive wing of the Democratic Party is appalled by the Biden administration’s backing of a war in Gaza many of its activists regard as genocide. On his right, Republican and conservative commentators are blasting the president as insufficiently supportive of Israel, in contrast to Donald Trump.

This criticism is now getting more fuel from a speech on Thursday by Sen. Chuck Schumer, blasting Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct of the war and calling for a new election in that country. Is Schumer, a top Biden ally and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, dictating to a sovereign country — or expressing a view endorsed by some 60% of Israelis?

Before the State of the Union address last week, one Fox News pundit argued that “Biden stands with Ukraine” while “Trump stands with Israel.” Yet Biden’s speech included powerful pro-Israel language. He stressed that Hamas began the war on Oct. 7 and can end it by releasing hostages and laying down arms. He described Oct. 7 as “the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” placing that attack in the historical context of anti-Jewish violence — not anti-colonial resistance as many progressives see it. He spoke of the sexual violence many progressives still deny and the American hostages some conservatives have accused him of ignoring.

Biden also noted that Israel faces unique difficulties in reducing harm to Palestinian noncombatants because of Hamas’ pattern of hiding among civilians. Nonetheless, many Israel supporters were angered by Biden’s strong words about the need for Israel to better protect civilians, with the implication that it hasn’t done so.

Biden’s “tough love” stance is necessary to pacify progressives whose votes he needs in November. But arguably, it is also important on the international scene, where strong U.S. backing of Israel must be balanced with recognition of humanitarian concerns. Notably, in a subsequent interview, Biden refused to draw “red lines” that would cause him to penalize Israel.

Biden’s initiative for the U.S. military to build a temporary pier off the Gaza coast for humanitarian aid deliveries has also raised eyebrows - and predictably has given rise to bizarre right-wing conspiracy theories claiming it will be weaponized by Hamas. The idea certainly has its risks, including possible attacks on American armed forces. Yet some Israel supporters favor it as a viable alternative to a larger role for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, widely criticized for coziness with Hamas.

It remains to be seen how well Biden can walk the tightrope of Democratic politics on Israel until November. But the notion of Trump as Israel’s staunch friend simply does not bear close scrutiny. One may debate his policies as president, but he has said very little in support of Israel after Oct. 7 — likely because of his well-known grudge over Netanyahu’s message of congratulations to Biden on his election victory in 2020. Just about the only statement from Trump has been to say that he would not have allowed the Oct. 7 attack to happen and that only he can protect Israel. So much for not wanting overly dependent allies.

Biden’s friendship for Israel may exasperate some as too little and others as too much. Trump’s only friendship, as usual, is for himself.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

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