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Friday, February 23, 2024

Opinion | Will Gaza Cost Biden Re-election? - The New York Times

Will Gaza Cost Biden Re-election?

Layla Elabed stands in front of a brick wall wearing a black-and-white kaffiyeh.
Layla ElabedPeter Baker for The New York Times

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As infuriated as she is by Joe Biden’s stalwart support for Israel, Layla Elabed has not ruled out voting for him in November. A progressive Palestinian American community organizer in Dearborn, Mich., a majority Arab American city near Detroit, she doesn’t want to see Donald Trump back in office.

“Donald Trump has never been a friend to our community,” she told me as we sat in an airy, modern Yemeni coffee shop. But to win her back, she said, “the very bare minimum” Biden needs to do is to completely overhaul America’s relationship with Israel, demanding a permanent cease-fire and ending American military aid to Israel, at least as long as its war in Gaza drags on.

Given how strong support for Israel is in both the Democratic and Republican Parties, I’m fairly confident that an aid cutoff is not going to happen anytime soon. But speaking to Elabed, the younger sister of Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, I sensed a chasm between my resigned assumptions about how American politics works and her convictions about what’s necessary to stave off even more mass death in Gaza.

“We’re looking at unprecedented times where we are watching a genocide unfold in front of our eyes,” said Elabed. Biden’s backing of Israel may be predictable, given both his own avowed Zionism and the political influence of Israel’s American champions, but to her and others like her, it’s become intolerable. That’s why Elabed is managing the Listen to Michigan campaign, which is organizing to get people to protest Biden’s handling of the war by voting “uncommitted” in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Biden will most likely never satisfy those most horrified by his Middle East policies, but if he doesn’t do more to try, he’s in danger of losing Michigan in November, which would almost certainly cost him the election. The state has the country’s largest percentage of Arab American voters, and within that community — as well as among many non-Arab Muslims, young people and progressives — there’s a deep sense of fury and betrayal at Biden for standing behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel pulverizes Gaza.

These voters have heard Biden criticize Israel’s “indiscriminate” and “over the top” bombardment of Palestinian civilians and infrastructure, but they don’t see his administration taking meaningful steps to restrain it. Given the intensity of pro-Israel sentiment in some corners of the Democratic Party, breaking with Israel has long been seen as politically risky. The “uncommitted” margin in Michigan next week will be an imperfect but useful gauge of the degree to which cleaving to Israel has become risky as well.

Elabed said Listen to Michigan, which officially launched just weeks ago, is aiming to garner between 10,000 and 15,000 votes, enough to “send the message to Joe Biden, and his administration and the Democratic Party, that we are a political force.” (Trump’s Michigan margin in 2016 was about 10,000 votes, though Biden beat Trump by much more than that in 2020.)

The campaign has spent six figures on mailers and digital advertising, and activists are holding phone banks and canvassing. High-profile Arab American leaders, including Tlaib; Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn; and Abraham Aiyash, the Democratic majority leader of Michigan’s House of Representatives, are all on board, as is Our Revolution, the group founded by Bernie Sanders in 2016, though Sanders himself has disavowed the “uncommitted” campaign.

Biden’s team seems to understand that they’re in trouble in Michigan. Early this month, they dispatched aides to Dearborn to meet with Arab American leaders, including one from Listen to Michigan. The next week, Biden issued an order protecting thousands of Palestinians in America from deportation for the next 18 months. In an important step against Israeli extremism, he imposed sanctions on violent settlers in the West Bank.

But as long as his efforts don’t directly address the catastrophic suffering in Gaza, they’re not going to mollify activists. And while it appears obvious that Trump would be worse on the issues pro-Palestinian activists care about, their desperation to exert leverage on Biden seems, at least for the moment, to override fear of Trump’s return.

It is therefore a political as well as a moral imperative for Biden to do more than simply decry Palestinian civilian casualties, particularly as Israel threatens to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million displaced people are sheltering in hideous conditions. Prominent epidemiologists have estimated that if the war escalates, an additional 85,000 Gazans could die over the next six months.

The urgent need to prevent as many of these deaths as possible transcends American politics, and it should be reason enough for the administration to stop shielding Israel at the United Nations, where this week it vetoed another cease-fire resolution. But given the stakes of the 2024 election, the political implications of the ongoing war can’t be ignored. “I don’t see Biden winning Michigan unless he changes course on Gaza,” former Michigan Democratic Congressman Andy Levin told me.

Of all the people who’ve joined the movement to vote “uncommitted” on Tuesday, Levin surprised me the most, because just last month, he shot down calls from progressives who wanted him to challenge Biden for the nomination. Levin, whose father and uncle both served in Congress for more than three decades, is an observant Jew and former synagogue president — a post now held by his son — who, in 2022, was targeted by AIPAC for his relentless criticism of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. (The group spent more than $4 million to defeat him in a Democratic primary.)

To some on the left, Levin’s combination of deep Michigan roots and defense of Palestinian rights made him seem like a uniquely promising vehicle for antiwar energies. In the left-wing magazine In These Times, University of Chicago historian Gabriel Winant floated the idea of drafting Levin to run against Biden, writing, “The relationship between Israeli militarism and political authoritarianism here at home is one that he understands intimately.”

Levin, however, was uninterested. “I’m supporting Joe Biden. I’m super proud to have served with him,” he told Politico, comparing this moment in American politics to the political climate in Germany in 1932, when the country was on the cusp of Nazism. Levin hasn’t changed his mind about the importance of Biden’s re-election: By backing the “uncommitted” movement, he says, he’s trying to save the president, not destroy him.

Levin frames Listen to Michigan as a way for Democrats to express their outrage while leaving the door open to return to the fold in November, and thus a pragmatic alternative to calls from a separate group of activists to “abandon Biden.” Many of those working on Listen to Michigan, he said, are “people who feel like it’s a pants-on-fire crisis that we have to change course on Gaza for substantive reasons,” and that doing so is the best way for Biden to beat Trump. “That’s a beautiful thing, when practical political objectives line up with the right thing to do,” he said.

There are plenty of Democrats, in Michigan and elsewhere, who don’t see this alignment. The state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who has emerged as one of Biden’s leading surrogates, argues that protest votes in Michigan’s primary will only weaken Biden ahead of November. “Every vote that doesn’t support Joe Biden makes it more likely we have a Trump presidency,” she told me.

But a refusal to take disillusionment with Biden seriously could also make a Trump presidency more likely. A recent survey by the Michigan-based polling firm EPIC-MRA found that 53 percent of voters in the state, and 74 percent of Democrats, favor a cease-fire in Gaza. That same survey showed Trump ahead in Michigan by four points, though that is equal to the poll’s margin of error. “It points to a potential Trump win unless things dramatically change,” Bernie Porn, a pollster for EPIC-MRA, told The Detroit Free Press.

Given how catastrophic another Trump term would be — including in Israel, where the far right fantasizes about his return — I find people who threaten to withhold their votes from Biden maddening. But if Democrats want them to come around, listening to them will be more effective than lecturing them.

Michelle Goldberg has been an Opinion columnist since 2017. She is the author of several books about politics, religion and women’s rights, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment."

Opinion | Will Gaza Cost Biden Re-election? - The New York Times

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