Last Friday, a senior political aide to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) convened a group of progressive pro-Palestinian groups on a Zoom call to discuss strategy. The list of participants included representatives of the political arm of Jewish Voice for Peace, the Institute for Middle East Understanding Policy Project, IfNotNow and Americans for Justice in Palestine Action.

The call took place less than two days after President Joe Biden confirmed on CNN that his administration had paused an offensive weapons shipment to Israel and would withhold additional transfers if Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where 1 million Palestinians are taking refuge.

The Ocasio-Cortez aide appealed to the activists on the call to give Biden appropriate credit, given the historic nature of the step, and noted that Biden was already receiving fierce pushback from Israel supporters furious about the news.

“It’s important we make clear to the White House that when the president moves in our direction, we’re willing to say so.”

– Mike Casca, chief of staff to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

“It’s important we make clear to the White House that when the president moves in our direction, we’re willing to say so,” said Mike Casca, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, who was not the aide present on the call.

On the whole, advocates for Palestinian rights and a cease-fire in Gaza — inside Congress and out — were already marching in step with Ocasio-Cortez. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) joined her in praising Biden’s announcement. So, too, did the “uncommitted” movement, which had sought to pressure Biden through the Democratic primaries; Arab American Institute founder James Zogby; the Muslim group Emgage; the Center for International Policy; the liberal pro-Israel group J Street; the Jewish Democratic Council of America; the Center for American Progress; and Indivisible. Even IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace offered Biden qualified credit, though JVP did not post its statement on social media.

But the praise was not unanimous, with plenty of pro-Palestinian groups unwilling to give the president credit while the war’s horrific toll on Palestinian civilians grows and U.S. weapons and aid continue to flow.

Those dissenting voices might show the growing pains of a still-young and inchoate movement reluctant to acknowledge incremental progress in the face of ongoing bloodshed in Gaza. Or it could show how an uncompromising vanguard can complement the work of a pragmatic advocacy campaign.

Biden has long said he would never let political considerations determine his policy vis-a-vis Israel’s military assault on Gaza. Still, an administration staffer told HuffPost, there has been a discrepancy in the volume and tenor of complaints he’s gotten from the pro-Israel community after Biden’s CNN announcement and the recognition he’s received from groups that support the Palestinians.

“Not that we’re doing it for politics, but we notice the volume on the outside when people say something supportive or critical, and it’s equally notable when they don’t say anything at all,” said one White House official, who requested anonymity in order to speak without authorization.

President Joe Biden (right) embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an October visit shortly after Hamas' terror attack on Israelis. Biden has since grown frustrated with Netanyahu.
President Joe Biden (right) embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an October visit shortly after Hamas’ terror attack on Israelis. Biden has since grown frustrated with Netanyahu.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

And it’s not the first time Biden administration officials have felt that way since Israel invaded Gaza.

For example, in late April, the White House floated the possibility of welcoming more Palestinian refugees from Gaza to the United States — a gesture to progressives’ humanitarian concerns, even if refugee resettlement hasn’t been one of their major asks. Republicans went to town blasting the idea, and even some swing-state Democrats were cool to it, but the left has not said much in response.

The facts are difficult for progressive groups to square. On one hand, Biden’s threat to cut off Israel was such a break with protocol that its most recent precedents date back at least three decades. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush withheld loan guarantees unless Israel agreed to freeze settlements in the West Bank.

For Biden, a committed Zionist who embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis and kidnapping of hostages, the announcement was an especially stark shift in approach.

“It’s significant for any American president, but I think we should recognize how much of a change and a shift this constitutes for this president,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, which describes itself as “the home for pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy Americans.” “There has to be a consistent policy and a consistent follow-through, and we need to see a lot more than we have seen. But this is a really important first step. And it indicates that the president is willing to say, ‘No more blank check.’”

“If his red line is Rafah, he just needs to stop the weapons transfers entirely.”

– Senior pro-Palestinian strategist

On the other hand, the conditions of Biden’s ultimatum to Israel grow murkier by the hour. Israel has begun military operations in Rafah, prompting nearly 450,000 people to flee the city under desperate conditions.

The Biden administration has not clarified exactly what it considers a full-scale invasion of Rafah, but it apparently does not see the operations currently underway as running afoul of the president’s red line. And on Tuesday, the White House notified Congress it had greenlighted an additional $1 billion in weapons transfers for Israel, including tank shells, tactical vehicles and mortar rounds, though not the 2,000-pound bombs that Biden paused delivery of last week.

“The Rafah invasion is already happening,” said a senior pro-Palestinian strategist who requested anonymity to speak without authorization. They were unimpressed with Biden’s announcement: “If his red line is Rafah, he just needs to stop the weapons transfers entirely.”

On Friday, the State Department also released its long-awaited assessment of whether Israel is violating international and U.S. law. The report said it is “reasonable” to believe U.S. weapons provided to Israel have been used illegally but avoided judging specific incidents and ruled U.S. aid and weapon sales to Israel could continue.

Displaced Palestinians pack their belongings before leaving an unsafe area in Rafah, Gaza, on Wednesday. About 450,000 Gazans have fled the city amid Israeli military operations.
Displaced Palestinians pack their belongings before leaving an unsafe area in Rafah, Gaza, on Wednesday. About 450,000 Gazans have fled the city amid Israeli military operations.

As a result, the report seemed to at once incur the wrath of conservative Biden critics while disappointing even allied groups, such as J Street, which endorsed Biden’s reelection in April 2023.

“The report makes it very clear that there is reason to believe that international law has been violated, and yet the administration did not lay out what accountability looks like,” said Ben-Ami, who lamented that Biden’s May 8 announcement of a red line in Rafah was not tied to the report’s findings.

Perhaps anticipating these developments, some pro-Palestinian politicians and groups refused to commend Biden for pausing the bomb shipment.

A spokesperson for Just Foreign Policy, an anti-interventionist group, noted Israel already has enough U.S.-supplied weapons to do as it wishes in Rafah. A spokesperson for Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American in Congress, observed that mere weeks earlier, Biden had signed a bill granting Israel $14 billion in emergency military and civilian aid.

On May 9, the Institute for Middle East Understanding Policy Project unleashed a series of complaints about Biden on X, formerly Twitter, arguing that, absent more action, Biden’s comments “mean little after seven months of genocide.” And Waleed Shahid, a prominent pro-Palestinian communications strategist, snarkily translated the CNN headlines about the interview as “Biden recognizes U.S. weapons have killed Palestinian civilians in Gaza but once again stops short of restricting or ending arms sales to Israel.”

The negative feedback — or silence — was enough to spark concern from Jeet Heer, a columnist in The Nation, that the left was losing the capacity to recognize its own progress.

“I commend the president for what he did, and I need to see him do a lot more.”

– Abbas Alawieh, National Uncommitted Movement

“Denigrating this sea change runs the risk of undermining the great historical achievement of the anti-war and pro-Palestinian movement,” Heer wrote.

Heer seized on a quote from Abbas Alawieh, a former senior congressional aide turned leader of the Uncommitted National Movement. Alawieh was quoted in The New York Times on Friday as saying that Biden’s move was “extremely overdue and horribly insufficient.”

Alawieh insisted to HuffPost that he had been quoted out of context and that he believes advocates must both recognize Biden’s shift and push for a complete end to the war. “I commend the president for what he did, and I need to see him do a lot more,” he said.

Regardless, there is some basis for fears that Biden’s pivot has not generated enough progressive support. And it’s a risky move, as restricting weapons or aid to Israel has long been a political taboo that invariably sparks fierce opposition from the country’s influential defenders in the U.S.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations all condemned Biden’s ultimatum, as did the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, which has endorsed his reelection. Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban warned Biden of the political consequences of his decision, claiming there are more “Jewish voters, who care about Israel than Musli[m] voters that care about Hamas.”

And 26 moderate House Democrats sent a letter to Biden on Friday expressing their disapproval of his withholding of a shipment of bombs and demanding a classified briefing about his decision.

Entertainment mogul Haim Saban is among the Democratic mega-donors who strenuously objected to Biden's threat to cut off weapons if Israel fully invades Rafah in the Gaza Strip.
Entertainment mogul Haim Saban is among the Democratic mega-donors who strenuously objected to Biden’s threat to cut off weapons if Israel fully invades Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images

“It’s a lesson in how to alienate everyone,” said a pro-Israel Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak freely about his party’s leader. “He has not assuaged the Arab American community in particular, … and while I think the pro-Israel community recognizes that he has been the strongest pro-Israel president we have ever had, there is nonetheless a tremendous sense of concern, worry, disappointment and even anger.”

The White House has also been disappointed in pro-Palestinian activists’ reticence about what a second Donald Trump presidency would mean for U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinians. Trump, who blessed Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands like no president before him, has criticized Biden’s paused weapon shipment. Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman — a major ally to the West Bank settler movement — has, among other extreme stances, called for throwing the “idea of Palestinian statehood onto the ash heap of history.”

Activists who support Palestinians’ human rights argue that the only political incentive that Biden should need to accede to their demands of a complete halt to weapon transfers is the public polling that suggests Biden’s handling of the war is hurting him with key demographic groups, including young people, progressives and voters of color. Though the war in Gaza is not a top concern for young voters at large, according to multiple surveys, the tight contests that Biden is likely to face in battleground states leave little margin for error.

Matt Duss, executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, is among those who consider it important to recognize Biden’s leftward step.

But he warned the Biden administration against giving credence to those who argue that the heat he is still getting from pro-Palestinian activists is a reason to dismiss them out of hand.

“There is a large and growing and diverse progressive left right now. There’s consensus about a lot of things, and there’s disagreements about some others,” said Duss, who previously advised Sanders on foreign policy. “But it’s become abundantly clear in the polling over many years, and especially in the last few months, that the president needs to pay attention to his left flank after decades of only paying attention to his right flank.”


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