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Biden is facing a massive wave of internal dissent over Israel policy

The president opposes a ceasefire in Gaza. Hundreds of his officials disagree.

President Joe Biden has for weeks endured criticism from left-wing activists, progressive Democrats, and Arab and Muslim Americans over his support for Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks. But now he’s facing intensifying dissent from somewhere closer to home: within his own government.

Five hundred Biden administration officials have signed an open letter demanding that Biden push for a cease-fire, a position directly at odds with Biden’s defense of Israel’s ongoing incursion into Gaza and his recent pledge that there was “no possibility” of a cease-fire. The letter was signed anonymously to protect the jobs of the signers; Biden administration officials who organized the letter have told NBC News and The New York Times that they represent political appointees and civil servants across 40 government agencies, including the National Security Council, the FBI, the departments of Commerce, Defense, Interior and Homeland Security and the Executive Office of the President. 

The letters undermine Biden by making him look isolated, or at least unusually polarizing, within his own government.

The letter condemns both Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and the death toll caused by Israel’s military response. “We call on President Biden to urgently demand a cease-fire; and to call for de-escalation of the current conflict by securing the immediate release of the Israeli hostages and arbitrarily detained Palestinians; the restoration of water, fuel, electricity and other basic services; and the passage of adequate humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip,” the letter says.

That letter comes after the emergence of another open letter signed — also anonymously — by more than 1,000 staffers with the U.S. Agency for International Development calling for a cease-fire, an end to Israel’s siege and Hamas’ release of hostages. That letter describes Israel’s military approach as failing to distinguish between civilians and militants and making it impossible to conduct humanitarian work. “We must remember that humanitarian assistance efforts and life-saving aid are largely rendered moot in situations of escalating and indiscriminate bombing and violence,” the letter says.

The circulation of these letters further ratchets up the pressure on Biden over his support of Israel as it de facto targets civilians and calls to provide it with $14 billion in aid. The letters undermine Biden by making him look isolated, or at least unusually polarizing, within his own government. And they lend credibility to a growing antiwar movement scorned by the right as naive. It’s not just lefties and college students, but hard-nosed experts, who have grave concerns about the humanitarian situation. 

Political appointees and civil servants tend to be pragmatic and accommodating when it comes to executing policy on behalf of a president; they’re typically more likely to express dissent — if at all — internally. Sometimes they’ll use strategic leaks to the media to criticize the administration they work for. But organized open letters signed by hundreds of staffers calling for the opposite of what the president is calling for represent more pointed attempts at expressing disapproval.

The internal dissent is also taking on an unusually spirited tone. Dozens of State Department employees have reportedly signed on to multiple internal memos sharply disagreeing with Biden’s Israel policy since the war began. Those cables, called “dissent channels,” were set up to allow for internal pushback during another controversial foreign policy crisis, the Vietnam War. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly acknowledged the cables in an all-department letter this week. 

There are signs that the dissenting members of the Biden administration are aligned with the public’s evolving opinion of Israel’s behavior in Gaza. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that over two-thirds of Americans agree with the statement that “Israel should call a ceasefire and try to negotiate.” And a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that most Democrats think Israel’s military response has been “too much.”

Politically speaking, Biden is in a tough spot. There’s really no move he can make on Israel during such a high-profile and grisly crisis that wouldn’t alienate an important constituency. But in terms of doing what’s right, international humanitarian law and moral common sense suggest that he should be condemning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overreaction to Hamas’ war crimes, and threatening to cut off aid to Israel instead of bear-hugging the prime minister and stocking him with more weapons.