By Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Despite Israeli bombardment that has brought Gaza to the brink of a humanitarian meltdown, U.S. President Joe Biden is facing little pressure at home to rein in Israel’s military retaliation for an unprecedented attack by Palestinian Hamas militants.
Biden appears to have given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a free hand, for now, to press his war against Hamas, though a threatened ground offensive – with the likelihood of a higher civilian death toll – could force the president to rethink that approach.
As Biden vows rock-solid support for Israel, he has only faced scattered protest from the left wing of the Democratic Party over his acquiescence to Israel’s tough crackdown in the crowded coastal strip.
Leading Democrats have helped him keep a lid on any intra-party dissent, seeking to project a message of unity, despite calls from a few progressives to get Israel to act with restraint to avoid massive civilian casualties as it battles Hamas.
The international outcry mounted on Friday against Israel’s warning to more than a million Gaza civilians to evacuate south within 24 hours before an expected all-out assault.
In Washington, however, Biden’s allies want to avoid giving Republicans an opening to accuse him of undercutting U.S. ally Israel’s military response, which could make the crisis a political liability as he seeks re-election in 2024.
Republicans have shown near-unanimity in backing whatever military action Israel decides to take after suffering the deadliest attack on its soil in decades. More than 1,000 people were killed and dozens more abducted into Gaza, including Americans.
Graphic images and accounts of atrocities committed by Hamas gunmen in their rampage through Israeli towns on Saturday have so far confined criticism of Israel and Biden’s approach to a relatively narrow segment of the American left.
But with Israeli strikes on Gaza having killed more than 1,000 people, preparations under way for a ground invasion and Israeli leaders vowing to annihilate Hamas, those voices could easily get louder in the days to come.
As Democratic leaders excoriate Hamas and pledge support for Israel, some have already injected carefully worded reminders of the need for Israel to abide by the laws of war.
“We are going to stand by Israel and make sure that we defend them and give them what they need to defend themselves,” said U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee.
But with militants using ordinary Palestinians as human shields, he said, “we must keep these Palestinian people and their safety and livelihood in mind as we crush Hamas.”
For much of Congress as well as the American public, Israel’s likening of the devastating Hamas assault to the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking attacks on New York and Washington has resonated widely.
U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, this week issued a statement that drew criticism for saying she grieves for both Palestinian and Israeli lives lost.
In a tough message to Israel, she said the path forward “must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.”
Responding to a question about early criticism of Israel’s response by other liberal lawmakers who had equated the Hamas attack with past Israeli actions, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre denounced such statements as “repugnant.”
“Our condemnation belongs squarely with terrorists,” she told reporters on Tuesday.
But on Friday, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic progressive who had strongly condemned the Hamas attack, assailed Israel over its Gaza evacuation order as “unacceptable,” saying on the social media platform X: “We must halt this.”
Democrats have for years grappled with tensions between pro-Israel moderates and a faction of progressives critical of Israel, especially for its treatment of the Palestinians and expansion of Jewish settlements.
This year’s push by Netanyahu’s far-right government for a judicial overhaul opened Israel up to fresh criticism, with the White House and many lawmakers echoing Israeli protesters who called the proposed moves undemocratic.
Though polls continue to show overwhelming sympathy for Israel among the overall U.S. public, a Gallup survey in March found that Democrats were slightly more favorable toward the Palestinians than Israel.
Biden, an avowed lifelong friend of Israel, has pledged to provide Israel with all the assistance it needs.
He has so far refrained from any explicit call for Israel to curb its response, the kind of statements that White Houses have typically made during previous crises.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken edged the closest to such an appeal during a visit to Israel on Thursday when he said he hoped Israel, as a democracy, would “take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”
Israeli officials insist their forces try to minimize civilian casualties.
A White House official said Biden’s aides have privately discussed their concerns with Israeli counterparts. “We also recognize that they are being aggressive and in these early hours they need to be aggressive,” the official said.
Since Saturday’s attack, Israel has put Gaza, home to 2.3 million people, under total siege and launched a powerful bombing campaign that has destroyed entire neighborhoods.
Biden, after keeping the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict at arm’s length, now finds himself thrust into the middle of a major Middle East conflagration.
He can ill afford to alienate pro-Israel voters ahead of next year’s election. The powerful pro-Israel lobby, headed by AIPAC, is a major force in U.S. politics and has often backed Netanyahu, with whom Biden has been forced into an uneasy wartime alliance.
While winning praise in many quarters for his stalwart backing for Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region, the crisis has also stirred criticism for not devoting enough attention to the plight of Palestinians, who have seen their hopes for statehood grow ever dimmer under Israeli occupation.
“Their guiding philosophy on this issue has been, for the past three years, to do as little as possible,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former Palestinian negotiations adviser now at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
U.S. officials have said the time was not right to attempt a resumption of long-suspended Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, largely because of the intransigence of both sides.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of liberal advocacy group J Street, said the administration had made some efforts to address Palestinians’ needs in recent normalization talks brokered between Israel and Saudi Arabia but had not gone far enough.
“There has been no broader vision or plan as to how to get at the underlying conflict that has now exploded in an unprecedented and unfathomable fashion of horror,” he told Reuters.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle; additional reportng by Jeff Mason, Simon Lewis and Steve Holland; writing by Matt Spetalnick. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Chizu Nomiyama)