Inside the Biden White House, Doubts About Gaza War Are Beginning to Creep In

We’re at the phase of the Israel–Palestine war when people start worrying about how they will look when this is over.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 10: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel in the State Dining Room of the White House October 10, 2023 in Washington, DC. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched the largest surprise attack from Gaza in a generation, sending thousands of missiles and an unknown number of fighters by land, who shot and kidnapped Israelis in communities near the Gaza border. The attack prompted retaliatory strikes on Gaza and a declaration of war by the Israeli prime minister. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, at the White House on Oct. 10, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Until last week, Miguel Sanchez was both a member of the Providence City Council and a constituent service representative for Democratic Gov. Daniel McKee. He is now only one of those two things; McKee fired Sanchez for his public opposition to the war in Gaza and his support for a ceasefire. Sanchez had introduced a resolution to City Council, which passed unanimously, condemning “terrorism and ethnic cleansing.” 

On Thursday night, the City Council passed another resolution, this one explicitly calling for a ceasefire, becoming the first city council to advocate for one — or at least one of the first. (Fact-check me on that if your city council has passed one; it looks like Richmond, California, sort of did.) 

We’re at the phase of the war where people are starting to worry about how they will look when this is over. Sanchez told me he has no regrets, and the ferocity of the Israeli campaign has only increased over the last week. 

For the Biden administration, though, it does seem like doubts are beginning to creep in, particularly judging from this jarring comment given to NBC News:

“If this really goes bad, we want to be able to point to our past statements,” a senior U.S. official said. The official said the administration is particularly worried about a narrative taking hold that Biden supports all Israeli military actions and that U.S.-provided weapons have been used to kill Palestinian civilians, many of them women and children. The Defense Department has said the U.S. is not putting any limits or restrictions on the weapons it’s providing Israel. 

It’s no longer a matter of if, so the administration better hustle to get those statements of concern time-stamped for posterity. For three straight days, the Israel Defense Forces bombed the same refugee camp, and today a drone strike hit the gate of the al-Shifa hospital — one of only four still in operation, home to some 3,000 patients and thousands more refugees.

The Gaza Health Ministry publicly asked the Red Cross to escort its ambulances as they follow Israeli orders to evacuate patients south. Today, Israel bombed the ambulances. (Israel claimed responsibility for striking an ambulance but said that Hamas fighters sometimes use them, and did so in this occasion, though it did not provide evidence to support that claim.) That they did so almost precisely as Secretary of State Antony Blinken was meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ostensibly on the question of restraint and civilian casualties, appeared calculated to send a message that Israel is not interested in slowing down. 

DMFI’s Plans for 2024

Across the country, members of Congress who have called for a ceasefire are now facing primary challenges. That’s the subject of this week’s episode of Deconstructed. Democratic Majority for Israel — DMFI, an ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — launched a $100,000 ad campaign against Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., in Detroit. Though Tlaib doesn’t have a primary challenger yet, the money is an effort to invite one in. (Jewish Insider reports that one candidate, former state Sen. Adam Hollier, has rejected entreaties to switch districts and challenge Tlaib.)

Dmitri Mehlhorn, the lead fundraiser for the super PAC connected to LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, which does battle with the party’s left flank, signaled that he plans to target both her and Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., according to CNBC. Bush has an official challenger: District Attorney Wesley Bell.

Mehlhorn told me that he is targeting Tlaib not because she is critical of Israel, but because of her statement in response to the Hamas attack on October 7. “To be really clear, if the issue was that Rashida Tlaib wanted to take the same resources currently allocated for Israel security and allocate it instead to civilian relief, that would not be a reason to fight in the primary,” he told me. “Given the specifics of what happened that day, including the intentionality and strategic goals, as well as the specific atrocities, an overwhelming majority of Americans prefer political leaders who are willing to simply say that such a thing is an atrocity that cannot be excused by any fact pattern, and deserves to be condemned as such. That is what Biden did, and that is what 98 percent of the Congress voted to endorse in the House and Senate resolutions. Of the 2 percent of Congress who failed that basic test, only Rashida Tlaib said that Biden’s insistence on taking the morally correct position on the matter was such an egregious act that he should pay a political price in the swing state of Michigan, and thereby reelect the most anti-Muslim president in American history. That is an extremist position within an extremist position within an extremist position. If we cannot condemn someone like Rashida Tlaib, we cannot pretend that we have boundaries on our side.”

(Mehlhorn is center-left in his politics but liberal when it comes to sharing his views; you can listen to our previous longform interview here.)

For context, here is Tlaib’s statement from October 8: 

I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost yesterday, today, and every day. I am determined as ever to fight for a just future where everyone can live in peace, without fear and with true freedom, equal rights, and human dignity. The path to that future must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance. The failure to recognize the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer. No person, no child anywhere should have to suffer or live in fear of violence. We cannot ignore the humanity in each other. As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.

While Bush has been outspoken in support of a ceasefire, that’s not the driving motivation for a primary, Mehlhorn said. “The biggest reason that Cori Bush is an electoral liability is that she continues to insist on defunding the police, a policy that is morally, practically, and politically catastrophic,” he said. 

Notably, Mehlhorn told Jewish Insider he was limiting his targeting to just Bush and Tlaib, worried about blowing the coalition up if he went too hard on the left. “If you try to police your own side too aggressively,” he said, “it actually breaks things.” DMFI intervened extensively in 2022 to sideline progressive candidates, as I wrote about in a long feature last year

Elaborating to me, he said that he also plans to target New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, not for lack of support for Israel (he supports it) but over corruption. “You can’t go after too many — you have to set some boundaries, but it’s a balance in a coalition. I can disagree with someone, but if they condemn the Oct. 7 atrocities at least I can still finish eating with them,” he said. “To my mind, it’s a big fucking deal what Tlaib did — no one else comes close.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries was asked about this policing at a press conference Friday. “Outside groups are gonna do what outside groups are gonna do. I think House Democrats are going to continue to support each other,” Jeffries said, which does the job of publicly backing the incumbents, but effectively giving permission to DMFI and Mehlhorn to do what they’re gonna do.


The Squad Is Getting Primaried for Standing Against the War

I interviewed Justice Democrats co-founder Waleed Shahid on Deconstructed, and we talked about the role of AIPAC and DMFI in these primaries. I interviewed him not long after Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin became the first senator to call for a ceasefire, which gave me an opportunity to crib from my upcoming book and tell the history of how Durbin became AIPAC’s first successful recruit, knocking off an incumbent, pro-Palestine Republican in 1982. 

The Firing in Providence, R.I.

Last week, the Providence Journal began asking if the governor was OK with an employee criticizing the Israeli siege, and Sanchez told me he was called in for a meeting with the governor’s top staff. His social media posts had made clear he condemned the killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas, but he also condemned the bombing campaign in response. “I’ve been very vocal in condemning any civilian lives being killed, that’s my main principle in all this. I’m very antiwar and understand what war does to the world,” he said. “That’s been really my main principle and then at the same time trying to make sure that folks know this situation didn’t start October 7.” He reiterated that condemnation of Hamas to the Journal

The governor’s staff told Sanchez to cool it a bit, and he did. Last Thursday, October 26, they asked if he was willing to take his social media posts down, but he told them his preference was not to. The communications director had also advised against it, he said, because it would only inflame the situation. He was not ordered to do so. 

The next day, he was called in again for a meeting with the governor’s chief of staff and his senior deputy chief of staff. Sanchez, when it became clear they wanted him gone, asked if he could have two or three weeks to find new work. They asked him to step out into the hallway so they could discuss. “They brought me back in and offered to give me a week pay if I would sign a resignation letter,” Sanchez said. The agreement would require his silence about the matter and he told them he wasn’t comfortable with that, so he was fired on the spot, and escorted out of the State House by the police. 

Sanchez said he didn’t regret speaking out, but it came with a cost. “I don’t have anything lined up. I live pretty much paycheck to paycheck. I don’t come from a wealthy family,” he said. “I do have the privilege of knowing people in the community that have businesses and whatnot. I know I’ll be OK, whether I have to do DoorDash for a while, it’s definitely on my mind at this point.”

The local American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns about the firing and Jewish Voice for Peace–Rhode Island, among other organizations, has condemned it. Sanchez remains a city councilmember, largely an unpaid position, and backed the ceasefire resolution that just passed. 

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