For the past few weeks, President Joe Biden has been steady in his public support for Israel following Hamas's murderous Oct. 7 rampage. Three days after the massacre, the president gave a commendable statement in support of Israel. He made it clear that Israel must defend itself from the "sheer evil" of Hamas.
When Hamas got some major U.S. media outlets and a member of Congress to report falsely that Israel had blown up a hospital and killed 500 Gazans, Biden countered once again. His administration accepted the correct information: Israel did not bomb the hospital. It was a rocket from inside Gaza. The explosion was not at a hospital. And 500 people did not die. Biden even told reporters, "I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed."
Later in the week, Biden got on Air Force One and visited Israel. This outreaching came at a time of great need and was enormously appreciated in Israel. In making the trip, Biden became the first American president to visit Israel during one of its wars.
What is most impressive about this series of actions is that it has come despite significant internal resistance from within his own administration.
The internal pushback started early. Even his original statement on Oct. 10, in the immediate aftermath of Hamas's barbaric slaughter, required him to resist his own White House staff. There was an hourlong debate with aides, who wanted Biden to take a "both-sides" approach to the statement — and the conflict overall, according to reports. To his immense credit, Biden admonished those aides. "Whenever an aide tried to water it down or both-sides it, Biden angrily and forcefully shot it down," according to one source cited by Politico. Axios's Barak Ravid reported that the pro-Israel speech was "all Joe Biden," which suggests that Biden may be in the minority in the White House in his support of Israel.
As for the false claim from the "Gaza Health Ministry" that Israel blew up a hospital, a Huffington Post analysis found that parts of the U.S. government rely on the Gaza Health Ministry, a propaganda arm for Hamas, for information on the conflict. While Biden deserves praise for refusing to accept the false hospital story, the analysis found at least 12 instances in which the U.S. State Department relied on the unreliable Gaza Health Ministry for casualty reports from Gaza.
Biden's trip to Israel was a morale boost to the embattled country and was very well received by the Israeli public. But here, once again, Biden made the decision over the objections of his aides. Biden's reportedly aides raised multiple concerns about the trip, including that it could be a security risk or a political gift to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden even told reporters that there was a "lengthy, one-hour" debate within his administration about whether he should go to Israel and that he felt going was worth doing.
These internal conflicts raise questions about whether dissenters within the administration will continue to press their "both-sidesism" approach and whether internal pressure will make a difference in Biden's decision-making over time.
To answer these questions, Biden, and the rest of us' can look to presidential history. He is not alone among presidents in facing internal White House tension during difficult moments for Israel.
In 1948, Harry Truman faced down his national security establishment, which was opposed to the initial recognition of Israel at a time when the new country was in a civil war with its Arab population and facing an imminent invasion from Arab armies. Clark Clifford, a future defense secretary who was relatively junior at the time, made the case for recognizing Israel in a tense May 12 White House meeting in front of Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall. Marshall adamantly opposed the recognition of Israel and even said to Truman, "If you follow Clifford's advice and if I were to vote in the election, I would vote against you." The room was shocked, but Clifford's argument won the day. A miffed Marshall never spoke to Clifford again.
In 1967, when Israel was facing an invasion by five Arab armies, Lyndon Johnson put immense pressure on Israel not to strike first. When Israel did, launching the Six-Day War, State Department spokesman Robert McCloskey gave a reprehensible statement in which he said the United States is "neutral in thought, word, and deed."
Those words infuriated some White House aides, who felt that Johnson should stand with Israel in a difficult situation. Pro-Israel White House aides Larry Levinson and Ben Wattenberg wrote a memo to Johnson saying that "there was sharp disillusion and dismay at the McCloskey statement concerning 'neutrality in word, thought, and deed.'" Johnson bristled at the internal questions, yelling at Levinson that he and Wattenberg were "Zionist dupes." Still, the pressure they applied in this case had a positive effect. The day after the memo, Israel accidentally attacked the USS Liberty. Johnson's national security establishment did not wish to accept Israel's claim that the attack was an accident. Yet Johnson gave Israel the benefit of the doubt, something he might not have done without the internal pressure from the Israel-backing White House aides.
In 1973, when Arab armies launched a surprise multifront attack on the holy day of Yom Kippur, Israel's very existence stood in doubt. President Richard Nixon wanted to send greatly needed arms to Israel, but internal dissenters from the national security establishment were delaying the shipments. Henry Kissinger, who was both secretary of state and national security adviser at the time, was reported to have been one of the those contributing to the delay, something Kissinger later denied. Regardless, Nixon demanded that the shipments go forward, saying, "Tell them to send everything that can fly." The shipments went ahead, which helped save Israel in a dire moment.
Today, as Israel faces another grave threat, Biden's willingness to stand up to the Israel critics within his own administration could go down in history with these other stories of presidents taking the right stand for Israel despite internal resistance. But the story is not yet over. There is a great deal of disagreement within the Democratic Party over the question of support for Israel. Biden himself has said his party is no longer "Scoop Jackson's Democratic Party," referring to a previous era when Democrats believed in diplomacy through strength and were largely unified in favor of Israel.
Today, the Democratic Party lacks that unity. A significant portion of the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, including but not limited to the "Squad," opposes Israel, and some even openly side with Hamas in the conflict. The Democratic Socialists of America, a powerful group within New York Democratic politics, will not endorse candidates who visit Israel. Even as polls show that a majority of voters in both parties back Israel in the conflict, Biden has seen a drop in his overall approval ratings, prompted by an 11% decline in approval among Democrats, in part because anti-Israel Democrats disapprove of Biden's pro-Israel stance. Leftist activist Max Berger warned, "The president and the White House are underestimating how much of a threat it would be for them to be seen as behind an Israeli ground invasion and how direct of a threat that could pose to his reelection prospects."
In addition, we continue to see evidence of internal resistance within the administration. Arab and Muslim staffers have reportedly been complaining about Biden's approach to the crisis. The Huffington Post quoted an unnamed State Department official who said that because of the Biden stance, "there's basically a mutiny brewing within State at all levels." This mutiny is manifesting in several ways, including the development of an internal "dissent cable" expressing disapproval of the administration's approach. In addition, State Department official Josh Paul resigned over Biden's pro-Israel decisions. In his resignation note, Paul wrote, "I am leaving today because I believe that in our current course with regards to the continued — indeed, expanded and expedited — provision of lethal arms to Israel — I have reached the end of that bargain." These challenges will be exacerbated by reports that more than 400 anonymous congressional staffers signed a letter urging a ceasefire before Israel achieves its war aims.
As a historian, I learned about previous moments of internal administration tension from memoirs, archives, and history books. In these earlier episodes, voters usually did not know what was happening behind the scenes. Today, a more aggressive press corps and the prevalence of social media mean that we often learn about these things in something much closer to real time. Furthermore, many administration aides and offices have their own Twitter accounts, which sometimes give us glimpses into internal disagreements. There have even been multiple deleted tweets from accounts displaying a "both sides" perspective and calling for an end to violence, contrary to administration policy. These deleted tweets, revealing the sentiments of internal dissenters, are reminiscent of the Johnson administration's initial neutral in word and deed statement.
The level of internal dissent is a challenge to Biden, but it is also an opportunity. If Biden holds the line against his internal critics and perhaps even sidelines or gets rid of them, that will send a strong signal that not only does he stand with Israel, but he also wants to return his party to the "Scoop Jackson" party that it once was. On the other hand, if he caves to the internal pressure, that would indicate that the Democrats are likely beholden to their progressive anti-Israel voices despite popular support for Israel in the country at large. Time will tell how this plays out, but the history of earlier White Houses facing similar challenges suggests that Biden would be best served by standing strong for Israel.