Biden's Israel weapons pause won't dent Gaza protests, organizers say

By Nandita Bose, Trevor Hunnicutt and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden's decision to pause shipments of thousands of bombs to Israel over the U.S. ally's attacks on Rafah won praise from some critical Democrats, but won't stop protests about Gaza that have dogged his reelection effort, strategists and organizers say.

Biden's decision last week marks the first time he has withheld U.S. military aid from Israel since the country began attacking Gaza seven months ago, pursuing Hamas militants. Republicans and some Democrats have accused Biden of putting the security of the U.S.'s closest ally in the region at risk.

It is also too little, too late, to satisfy the left-leaning coalition of young voters and people of color who have led the protests against Israel's attacks, many say.

Pro-Palestinian protests have swept college campuses across the country, followed Biden at private events and pushed Democrats in key battleground states to vote "uncommitted" to signal their unhappiness as deaths in Israeli-occupied Gaza climbed to 35,000.

"We welcome Biden's words and this gesture toward taking responsibility for U.S. complicity in these crimes," said Stephanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group whose members are involved with protests around the country, including on college campuses.

"If his words are to mean anything, rather than a one off pause, this needs to be the start of a sea change in U.S. policy," Fox said.

Protesters are seeking suspension of military aid to Israel, a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and for universities to divest from companies that support Israel's actions in Gaza. Israel is retaliating for Hamas militants attacks on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200.

"I think Biden's comments yesterday moves the needle... but what we don't know is if it's a PR move to try to placate some of his opponents on this issue or if it's real because he has also said his support for Israel is ironclad," said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, another group whose members have been participating in protests all over the country.

"We will continue protesting," Benjamin said.

Biden has called for a temporary ceasefire and said he supports an eventual two-state solution. While he has been increasingly critical of the Israeli government, billions more in weapons shipments remain in the pipeline.

On Friday, Israeli troops took their ground war with Palestinian fighters into city of Rafah, as the United Nations warned that aid for the devastated Gaza Strip could grind to a halt in days.

ISRAEL IS A TOP ISSUE FOR SMALL GROUP

Stanley Greenberg, a veteran pollster who has worked for top U.S. Democrats and Israelis, held a focus group on Wednesday with voters under 45 years old, and Gaza was one of the top issues raised after rising prices.

"It was top of mind for them," he said about Gaza. Asked whether "the U.S. has gone too far in support of Israel, a plurality say yes."

Some pollsters and the Biden reelection campaign believe the issue only resonates for a small group of people. "It's very important to some people, but they're in the minority in the electorate," said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University.

The campaign’s message is that Biden is experienced in diplomatic matters and going to make tough and necessary decisions regardless of the polls, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Americans' support for military aid to Israel has dropped in recent months, as has young voter support for Biden, polls show. He has struggled with tepid approval for most of his term in a sharply divided country.

Biden's margin of victory in some key battleground states was slim, and it would not take much of a slip in support from many such voters who backed him in 2020 to throw his reelection bid into question, analysts say.

Waleed Shahid, a Democratic adviser to the national "uncommitted" movement asking voters to pick another candidate in state primaries, called Biden's comment a "small step forward" and said it shows the U.S. has leverage in its dealings with Israel.

Shahid, however, said "until actions are taken to stop the arms sales for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's war, a lot of Biden's base, a lot of the Democratic Party is going to continue to be fractured on this issue."

Other groups urged Biden to act more decisively in confronting Israel instead of looking for a middle ground if he wants to put the Democratic coalition back together.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose, Trevor Hunnicutt, Jeff Mason. Editing by Heather Timmons and Josie Kao)