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Biden faces pushback within his own party for his unwavering support of Israel

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Netanyahu opposes a Palestinian state in any form. That puts Israel's prime minister in direct conflict with President Biden who, in recent months, has repeatedly called for a two-state solution. But Biden has long shown unwavering support for Israel in this war and in his decadeslong political career. Today, that stance is being tested. NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid has our report.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Joe Biden often says his education about the horrors of the Holocaust began around his family's dinner table.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It was at that table that I learned that the only way to ensure that could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure Jewish state of Israel.

KHALID: He took his first diplomatic trip to Israel in 1973, and it was the start of a lifelong emotional bond.

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BIDEN: Thirty-five years ago, I said, you don't have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I'm a Zionist.

KHALID: Former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross worked alongside Biden for years.

DENNIS ROSS: During the height of the second intifada, when there were suicide bombs, I traveled to Israel.

KHALID: It was 2002. Ross was at the King David. It's this famous hotel in Jerusalem. But because of all the violence against Israelis, nobody was there.

ROSS: I came down for breakfast, and the room was completely empty except for one table that has two people, and the two people are Joe Biden and Tony Blinken.

KHALID: He asked Biden why he was there.

ROSS: And Biden said this is precisely a time when I need to be here.

KHALID: It was a message. Israel was not alone. Israel would always have the United States as a friend. It's a message Biden carries till today. But while he has not changed, the world around him has. Aaron David Miller is a former State Department diplomat who advised previous presidents on the Middle East. He says despite calls for a cease-fire from some Democrats, Biden sees a long game.

AARON DAVID MILLER: People have asked me repeatedly, he's going to change at some point, right? He's going to pick up the phone, he's going to call Netanyahu, and he's going to say, enough already. My response is, I don't think that moment is going to happen. This has been an emotional gut issue for him from the beginning.

KHALID: Plus, there's the politics at home.

MILLER: I think that the president would be vulnerable to some conservative Democrats and certainly to the Republicans, if, in fact, he allowed them to paint him as someone who is not sympathetic enough to what the Israelis have suffered.

KHALID: But some Democrats on the left want Biden to show more sympathy for Palestinians, as well. They see Biden hugging Netanyahu and holding back in the way he criticizes the prime minister for massive civilian casualties. Jonah Blank was a foreign policy adviser to Biden for nearly a decade in the Senate. He says his former boss has always preferred to give and receive criticism behind closed doors.

JONAH BLANK: Joe Biden believes that public criticism is counterproductive and kind of humiliating.

KHALID: Blank said for much of Biden's career, criticism of Israel was political suicide. But the generational politics on this issue are changing. Earlier this month, a Biden appointee in the education department resigned. Tariq Habash is a Palestinian American and says he could no longer work in an administration where he felt his own humanity was undervalued. Habash says he always knew Biden was a strong supporter of Israel, but he's disappointed the president hasn't budged, especially when he's shown he can move on other issues, like the invasion of Iraq and abortion.

TARIQ HABASH: He has changed those perspectives. He has admitted, unlike a lot of other politicians, that, you know, you can be wrong and you can learn from the past, and you can learn from your mistakes.

KHALID: And he worries this could all be bad for Democrats. Biden, for his part, says the election is a long way off. This question of electoral consequences is hard to answer a year out in part because people don't often vote on foreign policy. Nonetheless, I asked Chris Coons about this. He's on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Delaware lawmaker is also a co-chair of Biden's reelection bid. Coons and other Biden allies point out the president's support for Israel has largely reflected the majority of the American public, but he also recognizes that a growing number of Democratic voters are alarmed at civilian casualties in Gaza.

CHRIS COONS: I think what matters is what happens next. I fully expect that there will be a change.

KHALID: More humanitarian aid, a less intense fight...

COONS: And significant movement towards regional reconciliation and regional peace. If that doesn't happen over the next couple of months, I do think that there's segments of the Democratic base that will be more and more concerned and disenchanted.

KHALID: The White House has had lots of discussion about normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia in a grand bargain that they think could lead to long-term peace in the region. But this is contingent on moving toward a state for Palestinians, something that the Israeli prime minister is set against, and that puts Biden in a tough position. He has to navigate Netanyahu and the fractures in his own base in an election year.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.