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President Biden has not wavered in his public support for Israel's war

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden faces competing political pressures as he responds to the Israel-Hamas war. Ever since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, the president has offered emotional and powerful support for Israel's right to defend itself. He paid a price on Tuesday. Some Michigan Democrats voted uncommitted in the presidential primary, declining to support Biden now that Israel's response has killed tens of thousands of people in Gaza. Stephen Walt has studied the pressure Biden faces to keep supporting Israel. He's at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and co-author of a book that argued Israel has disproportionate influence over U.S. policies. Mr. Walt, welcome to the program.

STEPHEN WALT: Nice to be with you.

INSKEEP: Do you contend that it's hard for a president to criticize Israel at all?

WALT: It's extremely hard to criticize Israel and presidents rarely do it. And certainly in election years, it's even tougher because they're worried about the consequences for them politically if they are too critical or put any real pressure on Israel. And that's precisely the problem Biden is facing.

INSKEEP: What consequences do you think Biden would face if he were more forceful against Israel?

WALT: Well, first of all, he would risk campaign contributions to the Democratic Party. Some of the stalwart donors to Democrats have been very - also very strong supporters of Israel, so he risks losing those campaign contributions. He will certainly be attacked by Republicans for being soft on terrorism, for not supporting our long-standing ally. He'll get beaten up on op-ed pages for various reasons, and he might even lose some Democratic votes up on Capitol Hill for things he needs there. So all of those things, you know, I think are influencing Biden's reluctance to criticize the excessive use of force in Gaza.

INSKEEP: I want to dig into this a little bit because you're saying there's campaign contributions, there's political support, and that Biden is being influenced here. But it seems to me, just looking at him, his public statements, the president seems sincere in his support for Israel, its long-standing support for Israel. And he sometimes has also criticized Israel. Would you really make the case that he is not speaking his mind here?

WALT: Yeah, I think he's not. Well, it's hard to know. Biden himself, I think, has a somewhat outdated view of Israel and even what influences Israel as well. He has been a strong supporter of Israel throughout his political career, really no deviation from the AIPAC line. I think he still has this sort of outdated view that it's a weak Israel facing a powerful Arab set of enemies. That's, I think, no longer the case. And he believes, I think quite clearly, that the way to influence Israel is to show no daylight, you know, sort of hug them close. And that's how you get them to do what you want. Unfortunately, that's been tried before, and he's been trying it for the last three or four months, but without much success.

INSKEEP: Is he not able to threaten Israel in some way because the United States provides so much aid?

WALT: He has enormous potential leverage. And even if you didn't touch the aid package, if you continued to provide various forms of support, there are a variety of other things he could do. He could abstain on U.N. Security Council resolutions. He could reopen the consulate general in Jerusalem to serve as an embassy to the Palestinians. He could declare that the United States was now going to officially recognize the state of Palestine. So there's a whole series of steps he could make to signal that the American position was not one of no daylight, but he hasn't taken any of those steps yet.

INSKEEP: Is it not complicated by the fact that Israel has been such a close ally and has woven itself into U.S. policies in the region in a very close way for many, many years?

WALT: That certainly is a complication, but it's not a serious one, particularly given the seriousness of the events we see happening in Gaza. There's no connection between the United States and Israel that is so indispensable to the United States that we couldn't shift policies.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask if there's anything particularly bad about this influence that the president faces? We live in a democracy. People have opinions. And it's said, of course - or it was said - that all politics is local. In Michigan the other day, we heard from Arab American voters who feel very personally and strongly about this war. And they cast a protest vote, an uncommitted vote, and that's democracy. That's part of how democracy works. You're also hearing, as you have indicated, very strongly from people who feel a connection to Israel or who support its cause in some way. Is that not also democracy?

WALT: That is certainly democracy. And the influence that groups like AIPAC and others have is not illegitimate in any way. This is the bind, of course, that Biden is in, is that he's also in trouble because of the position he has taken. And your point about Michigan is exactly right. The difficulty for Biden is that this is losing him support not just with Arab Americans, but also with progressives and especially with young people.

And it's not that they're likely to go over and vote for Trump in the election, it's that they'll stay home and they won't help the Democratic Party get out the vote. You're not going to have the people working the phone banks. You're not going to have the same enthusiasm. So this is, I think, a real problem for him regardless of which direction he goes. My view is at that point, if it's damned if you do, damned if you don't, you ought to do the right thing for the United States overall and shift the policy.

INSKEEP: Stephen Walt is at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of the book "The Israel Lobby." Thank you very much for your time.

WALT: Nice talking with you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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