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Can Democrats overcome their deep divisions over Gaza?

The party is fractured over President Joe Biden’s unequivocal support for Israel as it continues its military campaign in Gaza ahead of 2024.

Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib stand side by side wearing serious expressions. Part of the Capitol dome can be seen in the background.
US Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) listen during a news conference calling for a ceasefire in Gaza outside the US Capitol building on November 13, 2023, in Washington, DC. 
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Democratic divisions over the war in Gaza have spilled out into the open in recent weeks, raising questions about the potential electoral consequences ahead of 2024.

On Tuesday, the House passed a resolution proposed by Republicans that equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Republicans said they intended to curb a very real outpouring of antisemitism amid the war. But the actual outcome of the resolution — which advances a misleading premise that criticism of a diverse pro-Israel political movement is equivalent to hatred of Jews — merely put Democratic discord on display.

Some 95 Democrats voted for the resolution to show their support for Israel following the October 7 attack by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group designated a terrorist organization by many countries. Another 92 Democrats, including several Jewish Democrats, voted “present,” neither supporting nor opposing the resolution. The remaining 13 Democrats, mostly progressives who have called for a ceasefire as the death toll in Gaza surpasses 17,000, voted against the resolution.

The divisions go beyond the resolution, however. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) has also recently faced backlash from her colleagues for what they perceive as her not being forceful enough in condemning widespread sexual violence that Israel claims Hamas committed on October 7. The criticism came after Jayapal said in an interview with CNN last weekend that while using rape as a tool of war is “horrific,” “we have to be balanced about bringing in the outrages against Palestinians.” Several Democrats have since started drafting a resolution condemning the alleged sexual violence, which Hamas has denied despite witness testimony, crime scene photos, and videos posted by Hamas fighters themselves.

And progressives have sought to place conditions on any military aid sent to Israel, which President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have rejected as the administration maintains its unequivocal support for the war. More than a dozen Democratic senators have called for an amendment to a pending $111 billion foreign-aid package — around $10 billion of which would go to Israel — requiring that Israel “abide by US and international law, prioritize the protection of civilians, assure the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza, and align with a long-term vision for peace, security, and two-state diplomatic solution,” as Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) described it in a statement. Moderate Democrats have not joined those calls, and the AP reported that some believe the amendment is unnecessary given that US law already requires that recipients of US military aid respect human rights.

Democrats have prided themselves for years on staying unified around core issues in contrast to Republican disarray, but are now facing bitter disagreement about the US’s relationship with Israel.

“There’s a huge cleave in their coalition right now,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a GOP strategist based in Michigan. The state has a large Muslim-American community frustrated with Biden’s handling of the war, and some political strategists believe that could cost him the critical swing state where a recent poll showed him trailing former President Donald Trump. “How forceful Biden has been in his support of Israel creates a real problem and forces every Democrat to now pick a side within their coalition,” said Roe.

Will Democrats’ disagreements actually matter in 2024?

The division within the Democratic caucus reflects a national debate Republicans believe they can use to their advantage in next year’s elections.

GOP pollster Robert Cahaly said that, based on what he’s hearing from voters, US policy on Israel may well become a determinative issue for voters in 2024 akin to abortion or guns. Biden’s almost unconditional support for Israel as it continues its indiscriminate bombing campaign in Gaza has been met with outrage among many young voters and Muslim Americans, a number of whom are consequently threatening to ditch Biden in 2024. And conversely, there are also some Democrats who don’t think that their party’s support for Israel has been strong enough. In the last month, Biden has taken a slightly more critical stance, pressuring Israel to take more care to avoid civilian suffering and rein in Israeli settlers in the West Bank, apparently to little avail.

“People are angry about this,” Cahaly said.

But Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist who correctly predicted Democrats’ strong performance in the midterms, said that Republicans shouldn’t be licking their chops yet. Polls have repeatedly shown that most Democrats approve of Biden’s approach to the war. There is a sizable share of Democrats who don’t approve — 39 percent in a December AP-NORC Center survey, which is consistent with other recent polls by Quinnipiac, Marist, and YouGov. But the question is whether their disagreement with the president will matter when it comes time to vote.

“It’s highly unlikely that for other than a small number of people this will be a determinative voting issue for them 11 months from now,” Rosenberg said. “Based on history, where foreign policy issues often are not determinative for many voters, it’s unlikely that this is going to become something that creates a major fissure in the Democratic Party.”

So far, it doesn’t seem like the war has meaningfully hurt Biden in head-to-head matchups with Trump. There have been six such polls released in the last week in which Biden was ahead or tied with Trump, and in several, he had improved his standing since November. And in a Harvard Institute of Politics poll released earlier this week, Biden was beating Trump among 18- to 29-year-olds by 24 percentage points — the same margin he won by in 2020, according to exit polls.

“There is an important debate happening inside the Democratic Party right now,” Rosenberg said. “Is it going to be corrosive and divisive? Of course, it could be. There isn’t a lot of evidence that it is right now.”

Democrats still need to be careful about how they manage the war, both in terms of communicating with the American people and in terms of ensuring that the war is “conducted in a way that’s consistent with our values and policies,” Rosenberg said. So far, he added, Biden has been effective in responding to his more progressive critics’ calls for a ceasefire while ultimately preserving his pro-Israel stance. The ceasefire, brokered by Qatar and Egypt, was welcomed by Biden, but was only temporary, lifting on December 1 after negotiations between Israel and Hamas deteriorated with each side blaming the other.

Still, Republicans perceive opportunities to pick up voters who might be alienated by Biden’s support for Israel.

That might include Jews who feel Democrats haven’t been full-throated enough in their support for the war, Roe said. While any gains with that group might have limited impact in terms of winning elections given that Jewish voters are concentrated in large, mostly Democratic cities, it could be a boon for fundraising, he added.

“When it comes to defending Jews in America today, Republicans are out there forcefully and aggressively, and obviously, there’s political opportunity there,” Roe said. “How are these voters still lined up with Democrats?”

Cahaly said that the war may help Republicans reframe the narrative around extremism in their camp, allowing them to point the finger at Democrats for espousing what they perceive as antisemitism. It’s worth noting, however, that some Republicans who have recently taken up the argument that Democrats belong to an extreme, antisemitic party, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), are notorious peddlers of antisemitic conspiracy theories themselves.

Cahaly also sees an opportunity for Republicans to win over disaffected Democrats and independents and energize members of their base who see the pro-Palestinian views of young people as the product of left-wing ideas run amok at institutions like universities. “There is a price for having the next generation taught a bunch of nonsense,” he said.

Otherwise, all Republicans really need to do is “sit back and watch [Democrats] burn their house down,” Cahaly said. In his view, that’s especially the case given the swath of potential independent and third-party candidates angling to enter the race for president, and primary challenges that pro-Israel groups like AIPAC have threatened against Democrats who don’t support the war.

“There are going to be a lot of alternatives for people to vote for and make known their displeasure with Biden without having to vote for Trump,” Cahaly said.

But while votes like the one on Tuesday create an opportunity for Republicans to keep Democratic divisions in the news and on the minds of voters, Rosenberg argues the Democratic coalition has shown no signs of fraying in actual elections over the last year. The party has notched critical victories in the Virginia legislature, a Wisconsin Supreme Court race, and in preserving abortion rights in Ohio.

“[Republicans] are the ones that are getting their ass kicked all over the country,” Rosenberg said.

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