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Foreign Policy

How Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Affects U.S. Election

Apr 30, 2024
  • Jodie Wen

    Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University
  • Yitong Liu

    Master, Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago

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On April 18, the New York City police entered the campus of Columbia University to clear out students occupying the school’s west lawn and arrested more than 100.

The students were protesting the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces in the Gaza Strip. They erected tents on campus and settled down for a long-term sit-in.

In recent days, the situation escalated, as students from several American universities, including Harvard, Yale, Brown and MIT, spontaneously gathered in support of the arrested students and demanded that the schools sever economic ties with Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, which profit from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This inevitably brings to mind 1968 when the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, at Columbia University protested the Vietnam War in a similar manner and were violently evicted by the New York City police. At that time, President Lyndon B. Johnson was escalating the war, and antiwar sentiment was high in the United States. The development of cable television technology further escalated antiwar sentiment. The Vietnam War was the first war in American history to be televised, allowing a large number of Americans to see the horrors of the battlefield from their sofas at home.

Antiwar sentiment began to concentrate and either directly or indirectly led to divisions within the Democratic Party. Against the backdrop of criticism from antiwar factions within the party, increasing internal divisions and immense pressure from Congress, Johnson announced his withdrawal from the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.

Currently, the challenges facing President Joe Biden, who is seeking re-election, are comparable to those of the Johnson administration in 1968. Similar to Vietnam 56 years ago, large-scale airstrikes and the comprehensive blockade by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza have created a severe humanitarian crisis. Videos of civilian casualties have been widely circulated on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, attracting international attention and sparking a huge storm in the sphere of American public opinion.

The United States is playing a significant role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As an ally of Israel, it has unconditionally supported the Israeli government politically, economically, militarily and culturally for decades. Politically, the United States has repeatedly vetoed cease-fire agreements in the United Nations Security Council, staunchly supporting Israel and becoming the biggest obstacle to peace in resolving the conflict.

Economically, the United States has provided massive support to Israel. A report by the Congressional Research Service revealed that the U.S. government provided nearly $158.7 billion in economic assistance to Israel from 1946 to January 2023. Economic aid has gradually been replaced by military aid. Since 1985, the United States has provided $3 billion in military aid to Israel annually, with appropriations for missile defense separately listed.

On Nov. 3, less than a month after Hamas launched its attacks on Israel, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $14.3 billion military aid package for Israel. Some scholars believe that the American media, entertainment industry and academia have been heavily infiltrated by capitalists supporting the Zionist movement, and the majority of voices critical of Israel have been suppressed.

For a long time, Zionist lobbying groups have tightly linked America’s national interests with those of Israel, drawing significant criticism from progressive leftist factions. Progressive leftist groups have been orchestrating protests, occupying public spaces, initiating boycotts against pro-Israel goods, and voicing dissent against Biden’s stance on the conflict.

Drawing lessons from history, the biggest problem facing Biden in seeking re-election is how to deal with the new round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — how to maintain the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and other Zionist lobbying groups, while minimizing the negative impact of excessively favoring Israel on the votes of young leftist Palestinian groups.

Undoubtedly, the backing of progressive leftist factions is pivotal for Biden’s re-election bid. Reflecting on the 2020 election, one of the primary factors behind Biden’s victory over Trump was the endorsement of the democratic socialist stance favored in young leftist circles by Bernie Sanders, as well as support from four progressive congresswomen famously known as “The Squad.” During the Democratic primary stage of the 2020 campaign, Biden faced criticism from progressive factions within the party for his “moderate” stance.

Against the backdrop of intense political polarization in the United States, it was encouragement from leftists such as Bernie Sanders that induced their followers to engage actively in voting under the banner of “Defeat Trump” and enabled Biden to sidestep a recurrence of the 2016 scenario, where low voter turnout resulted in the Democratic Party’s defeat. Instead, Biden secured victories in both the popular vote and the electoral college vote, prevailing over Trump.

Some analysts posit that the backing of the student demographic is of paramount importance for Biden’s bid for re-election. They argue that the Democratic Party relies heavily on a robust turnout of young voters; otherwise, the balance could tilt in favor of the Republicans.

As the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict unfolds, support for Biden has waned among young voters. Should Biden persist in disregarding the appeals of the progressive left, the 2024 U.S. presidential election may witness a situation reminiscent of 2016, characterized by a notable decline in voter turnout compared with 2020. A considerable portion of young progressive left voters may opt not to participate. In the current Republican Party, which has veered toward a more Trumpish right-wing position, the phenomenon of uncommitted voters within the Democratic Party’s base poses a grave threat to Biden.

Further, discontent in the Muslim-American community toward Biden is steadily escalating. This demographic holds significant sway in Biden’s electoral fortunes. Analysts assert that Muslim-American voters in pivotal swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania were instrumental in securing Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. But a month following the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year, a survey by the Arab American Institute, a prominent American think tank, found a significant decline in support for Biden among Arab Americans, dropping from 59 percent in 2020 to 17 percent after the conflict erupted.

On March 5, ahead of the “Super Tuesday” primary, states with sizable Muslim populations such as Minnesota and Michigan initiated the “uncommitted” movement, signaling their discontent with Biden. In early April, the White House’s Ramadan dinner encountered staunch opposition and protests from numerous representatives of the American Muslim elite, further complicating this year’s election prospects.

Despite all this, the unwavering support of the United States for Israel persists, and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows no sign of abating. On April 24, President Biden officially signed a $95 billion foreign aid appropriations bill, allocating $26.3 billion in aid to Israel even as Israel continued its airstrikes in central Gaza, killing at least 27 Palestinians, including 10 children.

The trajectory of the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains uncertain, but it is undeniable that the controversy it has generated in American society and the polarization of public opinion it has created have significantly impacted Biden’s chances for re-election.

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