April 20, 2024 - 1:00pm

The war in Gaza is threatening to split the Democratic Party.

The party’s centrists, most notably President Joe Biden, mostly view Israel as a key ally and are pushing for continued material support for the war. Progressives, meanwhile, largely view the war as a genocide of Palestinians, causing friction between Biden and his Left-wing colleagues in Congress, as well as a revolt by the party’s young, progressive base in the form of nationwide protests.

Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib reportedly stormed out of a meeting with fellow Democrats on Thursday when funding for Israel came up. The Congresswoman, who was a vocal supporter of the campaign to vote “uncommitted” rather than support Biden in the Democratic primaries, has previously refused to say whether she would support the President in November. She was also joined by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar and other Squad members, who remained silent as colleagues chanted “four more years” during Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.  Several of them wore keffiyeh scarves as an outward sign of support for the Palestinian cause.

Dozens of Democratic members of Congress also signed a letter this month urging Biden to halt the transfer of offensive weapons to Israel until an investigation into Israeli drone strikes on aid workers was completed. “If this strike is found to have violated US or international law, we urge you to continue withholding these transfers until those responsible are held accountable,” it read.

American voters are generally supportive of Israel, as are most elected Democrats. But mounting pressure from progressive members of Congress as well as voters and activists has prompted Biden to become increasingly critical of Netanyahu and to make gestures of support for Palestinians, such as opening a port in Gaza to increase the flow of humanitarian aid.

So far, these moves have fail to quell unrest among progressives. Last week, dozens of Left-wing organisations warned that they were planning to disrupt the coming Democratic National Convention with what one activist called a “1968 kind of welcome”, a reference to the days-long, massive street brawls which took place outside the DNC in Chicago that year. Elsewhere, college campuses have been rattled by anti-Israel protests since 7 October, prompting two Congressional hearings over campus antisemitism. More than 100 pro-Palestine protesters were arrested at Columbia this week — including Ilhan Omar’s daughter — the latest in a months-long streak of unruly protests.

One politician who has tried to straddle the progressive line while remaining loyal to the President is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When asked to respond to Left-wing Democrats who couldn’t stomach voting Biden due to his support for Israel, the Squad member told Mehdi Hasan that, while she’s a strong critic of the President, she’d rather have him as an opponent than Donald Trump, who she views as a threat to democracy. “We will not be able to organise for any movement towards anything if we are facing the jailing of dissidents,” she claimed.

Last month, protesters heckled Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent critic of the war, for declining to label Israel’s actions genocide. Though she’s to the left of the President, she and Biden face the same dilemma: the party’s progressive base is too Left-wing on key issues for elected Democrats to appease them without turning off a much wider portion of centrist voters.

“It’s a wake-up call to the Democratic Party if elected officials are fearful to go on college campuses,” Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive, recently said. “The last thing young people want to hear is, ‘Well, the other guy is worse.’ That doesn’t do anything to inspire young people. They want to hear about how we’re going to have a more just foreign policy.”


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.