Earlier this month, a group of about 20 distressed White House staffers requested a meeting with President Biden’s top advisers, as Israel’s war in Gaza entered its sixth week.
The diverse group of staffers had three main issues they wanted to discuss with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, senior adviser Anita Dunn and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer: They wanted to know the administration’s strategy for curbing the number of civilian deaths, the message it plans to send on the conflict and its postwar vision for the region.
Zients, Dunn and Finer listened respectfully, but some participants felt they fell back on familiar talking points, said a White House official familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private exchange. The administration had to be careful not to criticize Israel in public so it could influence its leaders in private, the advisers said. U.S. officials were pushing Israel to minimize civilian casualties. And the president and his top aides were advocating for a two-state solution once the conflict was over.
The previously unreported meeting of officials underscores how Biden’s handling of what is arguably the biggest foreign policy crisis of his presidency is dividing a White House that has prided itself on running a disciplined and united operation. The Israel-Gaza war has roiled the administration more than any other issue in Biden’s first three years in office, according to numerous aides and allies inside and outside the White House, as staffers agonize over their positions on highly emotional issues.
Adding to the sensitivity, the unwavering embrace of Israel that many staffers find upsetting stems in large part from Biden’s personal lifelong attachment to the Jewish state, aides said. Biden often cites his 1973 meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir as a seminal event that crystallized his view of Israel as critical for Jewish survival.
At the time, Israel was 25 years old, a left-leaning nation and a military underdog, struggling to find its way in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Now Israel is a military powerhouse led by a far-right coalition, and the Biden administration has become identified with a military campaign that has killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, created a humanitarian disaster and damaged America’s moral authority in much of the world. [Continue reading…]