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More Than 500 Biden Campaign Alumni Want a Gaza Ceasefire

What a letter from Biden’s field staff and organizers says about how Democrats see the Israel-Hamas war.

For decades, American public opinion and policy on Israel has been near-monolithic. But as Israel’s bombardment and ground incursion of Gaza continues, arguments over Israel policy from inside the Democratic Party and throughout the State Department are spilling out into the open.

That, in and of itself, shows that some Americans within the establishment are processing the current war differently — and may feel more empowered than before to shape the contours of US policy.

President Joe Biden and congressional leaders have defended Israel’s military campaign to eliminate Hamas after the militant group’s October 7 attacks that killed 1,400 people and kidnapped over 200. As the death toll and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza grows, the president and his team have incrementally adjusted their public messaging, moving from a maximalist embrace of Israel after the attacks to discussing the need for a pause to allow humanitarian aid in, and hostages out. But the Biden administration, unlike the United Nations, World Health Organization, and humanitarian groups, has not advocated for an immediate ceasefire.

That has led to internal dissent and activism within the diplomatic corps and the Democratic Party apparatus, pushing for Biden to urgently adjust his approach.

On Thursday, over 500 alumni of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign banded together to urge a ceasefire. The signatories include staffers from Biden’s 2020 campaign headquarters, the Democratic National Committee, and state staff and leadership; 21 states are represented, including key battlegrounds like Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. “As President of the United States, you have significant influence in this perilous moment,” the group, named Biden Alumni for Peace and Justice, writes in an open letter shared first exclusively with Vox. “[Y]ou must call for a ceasefire, hostage exchange, and de-escalation, and take concrete steps to address the conditions of occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing at the root of the horrific violence we are witnessing now.”

“This is a rupture that’s happening,” Matan Arad-Neeman, an Israeli American activist who worked as a field organizer in Arizona and signed the letter, told me. The letter notes that 66 percent of voters think the US should call for a ceasefire, according to a recent Data for Progress survey. While polls mostly find that a plurality or majority of Americans think the US’s support for Israel is just about right, that hides a stark generational divide. Less than a quarter of young American likely voters approve of Biden’s Israel policies so far, according to a Quinnipiac survey conducted October 26-30. Given his reliance on young voters in 2020, that — and those voters’ general cooling on Biden — could pose a problem for a 2024 rematch with Donald Trump.

Pressure is also being put on progressive senators. More than 400 former campaign staffers to Sen. Bernie Sanders and more than 400 from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s orbit have each sent open letters calling for a ceasefire now. Sanders has rejected such calls, and Warren has shifted in recent days to calling for a humanitarian pause.

Within government, there are also cracks emerging. Career diplomats and political appointees at the State Department are using the dissent channel, a special mechanism to submit critical memos of policy directly to top officials, to voice their calls for a ceasefire. (Diplomats have used the dissent channel in the leadup to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and to warn against Trump’s refugee ban). More than 630 employees from the international development agency USAID urged the Biden administration to advocate for “an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities.” And a letter signed anonymously by more than 400 congressional staffers made a similar call.

It’s becoming a truism that this Israel-Hamas war is different: the scale of Hamas’s destruction was unprecedented and has fundamentally altered Israel’s security thinking. Israel’s military campaign in the last month has caused more deaths than 15 years of conflict combined. But the response in the US differs from previous phases of the long-running conflict as well: there is a growing sense, at least among young people, that the US mainstream consensus on Israel policy has failed and has enabled the hellish conditions that could lead to more deaths in the region, and potentially a broader war in the Middle East.

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“As the President of the United States, you have power to change the course of history, and the responsibility to save lives right now,” the Biden Alumni for Peace and Justice write. “We are counting on you to take that power and responsibility seriously and to meet this moment with the urgency it demands. If you fail to act swiftly, your legacy will be complicity in the face of genocide.”

What Biden campaigners want from the president

This isn’t the first time that Biden Alumni for Peace and Justice has mobilized. Amid the Israel-Hamas war of May 2021, a group of more than 500 former staffers called on Biden “to hold Israel accountable for its actions and lay the groundwork for justice and lasting peace.” They urged Biden to demand that the Israeli government lift the blockade on Gaza, end home demolitions in East Jerusalem, and halt settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Arad-Neeman organized the May 2021 letter (after which, he says, the White House reached out to him, but never set up a meeting). He hopes Biden will read the one currently being circulated. “I’m feeling a deep frustration that not only is he not meeting the moment, but he’s also actively enabling Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza,” he told me. “Hopefully, he’ll take this moment to actually reassess his policy and push towards equality, justice and a thriving future for all Israelis and Palestinians.”

The White House maintains that a ceasefire would benefit Hamas. State Department spokesperson Matt Miller says Blinken welcomes dissent cables and “finds it useful to get conflicting voices that may differ from his opinion.”

Today’s letter from the Biden Alumni for Peace and Justice urges the president to not only call for a ceasefire but also “use financial and diplomatic leverage to bring about” one, push Hamas to release hostages, put conditions on US military aid to Israel, and investigate whether Israeli operations in Gaza violate US law. The letter goes on to urge Biden to “take concrete steps to end the conditions of apartheid, occupation, and ethnic cleansing that are the root causes of this devastation.”

That language — and those calls — echo what diplomats have written in various dissent memos to Secretary of State Antony Blinken since the war began. (At least one more is currently circulating, that Vox has seen.) Those internal protests have led administration leaders to hold listening sessions at the White House and at the State Department. And Biden’s team appears to be continually tweaking its rhetoric in part to address these internal criticisms, though the policy writ large remains constant.

A senior official overseeing arms sales at the State Department, Josh Paul, resigned in protest last month. He told Democracy Now that “there has been an overwhelming response that I have heard from folks or from colleagues inside not only in the State Department, but across the U.S. government, actually, on the Hill, in the Defense Department, in the uniformed military services, including in combatant commands around the world.”

What this letter represents

Right now, these channels of dissent are mostly within the working level of these organizations. Speaking out publicly can be risky and detrimental to one’s career in politics. And among the upper echelons of the administration, traditional views about the preeminence of the American-Israeli partnership tend to dominate.

But internal feedback can change policy, as it has since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Young progressives have wielded sway in lawmakers’ offices, nonprofits, and even Biden’s own campaign. “Campaign staffers see that a lot of our struggles are connected,” Heba Mohammad, a Palestinian American who worked as Biden’s digital organizing director in Wisconsin for 2020, told me. “We’re working based on our values, and we’re going to hold our candidates to account for representing those values that they themselves have espoused.”

The signatories to today’s letter worked in critical states that helped Biden carry the presidency, and implicitly suggest they won’t be doing that if there isn’t a shift in Biden’s policy on Israel. “I hope that he recognizes that those of us who put so much time into his campaign are feeling ashamed of his administration’s position right now,” Arad-Neeman, who also works as communications director for IfNotNow, told me.

Though there are warning signs for Biden in some polls (a recent New York Times-Siena survey found him trailing in five of six battleground states), it is hard to make reliable predictions about voters a year out from the presidential election. What is clear is that members of the organizing community and campaign machinery, who will have to get to work much sooner (like, now), could step back absent a change in Biden’s policy toward Israel.

“There is outrage among people who work in Democratic politics about this,” Juliana Amin, who held senior roles in Iowa for Warren’s presidential primary campaign and the Iowa Democratic Party’s general election campaign, told me. “And we are the people who do the work that campaigns need, that wins elections, that uplift people and their platforms, and I know a lot of people who aren’t willing to do that work anymore if Democrats continue to enable genocide.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that a Trump presidency would also enable Israel, but there are indications that the situation would likely be worse. As ever, his comments with respect to this war are all over the place. He promised Hamas’s October 7 victims would be avenged “even beyond what you’re thinking about,” criticized Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on seemingly false grounds, and said he would have helped Israel make peace with Iran had he been reelected in 2020. Most alarmingly, he said he would restore and expand his Muslim migration ban to restrict Palestinian refugees from Gaza from entering the US.

But as President Biden begins to fundraise for his reelection campaign, the voices of those who organized for him before are growing louder.

Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policynational security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams. His accountability stories have won top prizes from the Society of American Business Editors and WritersSociety of Professional Journalists, and Military Reporters and Editors Association.

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