President Biden’s response to the flare-up of violence in the Middle East has given an opening to Republicans with 2024 White House ambitions to draw political battle lines with the Democratic administration and score points with the GOP base.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has an eye on a presidential run, is blaming Mr. Biden for signaled U.S. weakness to key actors in the Middle East that helped foment the worst clashes in years between Israel and its Palestinian population.
In calling for a “ceasefire,” Mr. Biden was suggesting a “moral equivalence” between the Hamas militants firing rockets into Israeli cities and the Israeli government’s retaliatory strikes against what it says are valid military targets. Hamas, Mr. Pompeo said, sees the White House’s lack of resolve as a signal to keep firing.
“They know this is not a red light,” he said in a virtual discussion Tuesday with the Center for Security Policy. “This is not something that concerns them and they are likely to do just the kind of violence you are seeing today.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence said in an op-ed for The National Journal this week that the Trump-Pence administration, in helping foster deals between Israel and some Middle East nations, had created opportunities for peace.
“But now, President Biden has sent the world a profoundly different message,” Mr. Pence said. “Instead of seeking peace through strength, he has invited violence through weakness.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said calls for a ceasefire “are tantamount to Hamas propaganda” and denounced those who would draw an equivalence between the two sides.
“If Hamas puts down its weapons there would be peace,” he said on the Senate floor. “If Israel puts down its weapons there would be no Israel.”
While Republicans are united in support of Israel and against Iran, Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party has been deeply conflicted as the violence rages.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, labeled Israel an “apartheid state” and other lawmakers on the left have accused Israel of human rights violations.
Some Muslim groups announced they were boycotting the White House’s virtual celebration this year of Eid, saying it was a protest against what they saw as Mr. Biden’s favoritism toward Israel in the new conflict.
“We have seen over the last 20 years or so the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which had strong bipartisan agreement, has become more partisan over time with Republicans more likely to side with the Israelis and Democrats sort of less inclined to side consistently with Israelis,” said Chris Preble, of the Atlantic Council.
“Part of that is generational,” he said. “Younger people are more open to approaching this from a more even-handed perspective than what has traditionally been a more pro-Israel stance.”
The Biden administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to Israel and also has not tapped a special envoy for the region.
Mr. Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday he wants to see a “significant deescalation” in violence immediately that paves the way to a ceasefire as Israel responds to attacks from Palestinian militants in Hamas with airstrikes on Gaza.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Mr. Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, knows “the best way to end an international conflict is typically not to debate it in public.”
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr. Biden should not be blamed for the recent violence.
He said the new president’s approach is “consistent with the way other administrations have dealt with the periodic hostilities in Gaza” and said they are giving the Israel Defense Forces “time to deal Hamas a blow until the political and international pressure builds for a ceasefire.”
Mr. Pompeo was more skeptical.
He said Mr. Biden has torn up the Trump administration’s playbook and accomplishments, including trying to stitch back together a deal with Iran on that country’s nuclear ambitions.
He lamented that Mr. Biden’s first phone call with Mr. Netanyahu came nearly a month after he entered office.
And he said the Iranian regime, which has been designated as a leading state-sponsor of terrorism and accused of funding Hamas, is keeping tabs.
“The Iranians understand power and deterrence and they can sniff weakness 5,000 miles away,” Mr. Pompeo said.
The tough talk from the GOP is likely to play well for presidential contenders, said Robert L. Vander Plaats, head of the Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization in Iowa.
“There is little doubt why things are flaring up in the Middle East, and part of that is when it was Trump and his administration there was no gap between the United States and Israel and the message was clear that if you mess with Israel you mess with the United States,” Mr. Vander Plaats said.
The Iowa caucuses are traditionally the first stop on the presidential nomination calendar.
“Israel may not rank in the top three as far as issues in caucus-goers minds, or primary goers minds, however, if you are wrong on your approach, and too nuanced on your embrace of Israel it could disqualify you quickly,” Mr. Vander Plaats said.