Biden can’t win in 2024 on Israel — but he can lose

Events in the Middle East can have an influence on US elections - and that influence often damages the incumbent president

November 09, 2023 12:26

Americans will elect a new president on 5 November, 2024. A week is supposed to be a long time in politics, but when it comes to presidential elections, a year is surprisingly short.

The presumptive candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, are already campaigning. The issues that will decide the elections are already clear, and they include Israel and the issue of Jewish security.

The Israel-Hamas war and the wider Israel-Iran confrontation are foreign policy issues. But Israel is, uniquely, also a domestic issue in American politics. This is largely because America, uniquely among Western democracies, is still a Christian country.

Also, though the Democrats hector the “deplorables” about the iniquities of American history, most Americans, again uniquely, still see their nation as having a providential mission.

Foreign affairs rarely decide the outcome of American elections, but events in that vague world beyond the seas often influence the outcome. When they do, the influence usually damages the incumbent.

The 2004 election, in which George W. Bush was buoyed by post-9/11 patriotism, is an exception. More typical are the 1968 and 1972 elections, when Richard Nixon gained from public dissatisfaction with the Democrats’ open-ended pursuit of the Vietnam war; and 1980, when Ronald Reagan gained from Jimmy Carter’s ill-judged accommodation of Iran’s hostage-taking regime.

Presuming that Biden goes the distance, he will reckon with a similar pattern of events. The Democrats have pursued ill-judged policies on Iran and an open-ended war in Ukraine. They misjudged Hamas’s intentions, too.

The economy resembles the late 1970s: high inflation, an energy crisis, and a tin-eared administration that insists everything is just great. So does the disorder within the Democratic Party: as with Ted Kennedy’s run in 1980, a sitting president may face a challenge from within the ranks. And this time, the US faces a rising power, China, rather than the sclerotic Soviets.

Biden will recognise the resemblances to 1980, as he was there. He might also recognise another ghost from the Democratic past: the return of the Sixties’ “generation gap”.

Younger millennials and Gen Z are from a different world. They have little interest in the ancient history of the Cold War. They don’t value democracy as an end in itself. They’ve been taught to despise the American origin story. They like the idea of socialism and strong leaders. They don’t like Israel.

Biden rushed to publicly embrace Israel after October 7. Hillary Clinton appeared to explain why a ceasefire was immoral. In an NPR/Marist poll from mid-October, less than half (48 per cent) of young Democrats thought the US should “publicly voice support for Israel”.

The party’s left, however, is also openly hostile to Israel and openly critical of Biden’s policies. In 2016, the annual Gallup survey found that Democrats sympathised with Israel (53 per cent) over the Palestinians (23 per cent). In February, Gallup reported that the balance has tipped for the first time: 49 per cent now sympathise with the Palestinians, and 38 per cent with Israel.

Biden will also face a growing electoral force: the Arab and Muslim vote. “Joe Biden has singlehandedly alienated almost every Arab American and Muslim American voter in Michigan,” said Alabas Farhat, a Democratic representative in the Michigan state legislature. Michigan is one of five swing states where Trump pulled ahead of Biden in last week’s polls.

Independent and centrist voters disapprove of Biden’s weak leadership. Many Democrats disapprove of his recent show of strong support for Israel: since October 7, Biden’s approval rating among Democrats has dropped by 11 points, to a record low of 75 per cent.

No wonder the administration is pushing for a ceasefire, reviving talk of a two-state solution, and pretending not to notice as Iranian-armed militias fire rockets at US bases.
As Biden knows, you cannot win an American election on Israel alone, but Israel, and foreign policy failure more generally, can help you lose one.

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November 09, 2023 12:26

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