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Can Biden walk the line between support for both Israel and Palestine?

For decades, the U.S. has supported Israel, backing up its defense policy and supplying tens of billions of dollars in aid and weapons. Now, some within the Democratic party are questioning that support, and challenging President Biden's handling of the Gaza conflict. John Yang speaks to Daniel Brumberg, director of democracy and governance studies at Georgetown University about the matter.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For decades, the U.S. has supported Israel in word and deed, vocally backing up its defense policy, and supplying tens of billions of dollars in aid and weapons.

    Now some within the Democratic Party are questioning that support and challenging President Biden's handling of this new war between Israel and Hamas.

    Here again is John Yang.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, this latest crisis in the Middle East is turning out to be almost as much a test for President Biden and U.S. policy in the Middle East as it is for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    Daniel Brumberg is the director of democracy and governance studies at Georgetown University.

    Daniel Brumberg, thanks so much for joining us.

    In the last couple of days, we have seen Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, who has been very critical of President Biden on this issue, press him on the tarmac at the airport in Detroit when he arrived yesterday.

    Today, 138 House Democrats urged the president to press both sides for a cease-fire as soon as possible. What do these sort of internal Democratic Party forces do? How is this affecting President Biden's response?

  • Daniel Brumberg:

    Well, these developments suggest that the ground is shifting in quite dramatic ways.

    And I think the ground is shifting not only in Congress, but in the broader American population and, to some extent, in the Jewish-American population as well. And it's going to pose a real challenge for Biden to sort of balance the position of mainstream supporters in his party for Israel and the growing concern not only in Congress, but beyond Congress, regarding the absence of a two-state solution and justice for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank or the occupied territories.

    So, he's going to have to walk a very difficult line, and he's going to have to do to really not being prepared, in the sense that this is not an administration that went into this situation expecting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be uppermost on its agenda. It's really something they had to sort of react to very quickly.

  • John Yang:

    What do you expect to hear from the president as we go forward? I mean, today, he shifted, saying that, today, he wanted to see evidence of de-escalation, on a path to a cease-fire. What should we expect to hear?

    And what should be — you expect the approach to be from the White House?

  • Daniel Brumberg:

    Well, I mean, I — today, we heard his expectations. He communicated them to the Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu was not terribly receptive. And now we hear the news that there may be a cease-fire.

    My sense is that something along the lines of cease-fire will come in the next day or two, and Israel, from its own sort of perspective of the Israeli government, will achieve most of what it sought to achieve militarily in Gaza.

    But I think we should expect an initiative, not a peace initiative, but an initiative from the administration to demonstrate that it's engaged on this issue.

    A number of scholars and experts have suggested things like sending an American ambassador to Israel, which would be very helpful, sending a more high-level negotiator to the region representing President Biden directly, perhaps taking an initiative like reopening the American Consulate in Jerusalem, a whole number of issues, so far from — instead of putting out a peace plan, per se, or anything like that, to take initiatives that demonstrate that the U.S. is engaged and will be engaged.

    And that's the first thing I think we should expect. And I think the United States will do that, with the support of its European allies and many friends in the Arab world.

  • John Yang:

    Of course, over the past four years, under the Trump administration, the United States has had virtually no relationship with the Palestinians, with the Palestinian Authority.

    What are the challenges as the Biden administration moves to reengage?

  • Daniel Brumberg:

    Well, I mean, the Trump administration helped to shepherd in the Abraham Accords, which were an agreement between Israel, Bahrain, UAE and other Arab states.

    It turns out that the basis of this agreement was that Israel got a lot, but gave nothing in return. And the Trump administration didn't look for anything in return. And it's — and that sort of legacy is with us today, because the administration has been really disengaged — disengaged from the Palestinian conflict, until really now.

    Suddenly, it finds itself facing this challenge. So the administration will have to engage on a multilateral level. It will try to pull in its Arab colleagues. But it really has to engage in a dialogue with the Israeli government as well, and demonstrate that it understands the fundamental challenges facing Israel.

    Let's understand that the Hamas is an organization which has never accepted Israel's existence, and rejects a two-state solution. So, on the Gaza/Palestinian/Israeli front, cease-fires are what you want. What you get beyond that is always a big question.

    But the name of the game beyond that is for Israel and the United States to reengage in the future of the West Bank. There are 3.2 million Palestinians who are citizens of nowhere in those territories. And many of them live in and around East Jerusalem, which was part of the issue that prompted this whole conflict recently.

    And the U.S. really has to demonstrate that it hears the Palestinians, while at the same time engages with the Israelis. It has to have that double message.

  • John Yang:

    You talked about the shifting attitudes of the Jewish community within the United States. Talk about a little bit more about that.

    How is it shifting? How do they now view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

  • Daniel Brumberg:

    Well, that's a great question.

    And I think we have to be honest. There is a very important and useful debate going on in the American Jewish community about sort of how to relate to Israel. And it has probably to do with what kind of state Israel will be. Will it be a Jewish state? Will it be a democratic state? Can it be both, hopefully?

    And the lion's share of the American Jewish community remains committed to Israel being a Jewish and a democratic state that lives in a two-state peace situation with the Palestinians.

    But, at the same time, there's great consternation about not only the failure to bring about a two-state solution, but the status of Palestinians in Israel, Israeli citizens who are Palestinian.

    The sectarian violence recently is an existential issue for Israel. And so, in many respects, what we have ongoing now, I think, from my own anecdotal experience, is a kind of rising and difficult debate. I think it has to be said that many American Jews, in engaging with Israel, haven't engaged much with their own Palestinian population there.

    And so many — much of this is new and difficult. And it's a hard conversation to have, but it's a necessary conversation.

    So, as the administration, the Biden administration, moves to reengage with the Palestinians and with the Israelis, and push an almost dead peace process forward, it's going to be critical that this conversation take place. And it's going to be a difficult one.

    So — and I can see that the fissures within the Democratic Party will probably be exploited by the Republican Party for political purposes. This is Washington, after all. We expect that. But this debate is important to have, nevertheless.

  • John Yang:

    Daniel Brumberg from Georgetown University, thank you very much.

  • Daniel Brumberg:

    Thank you.

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