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Israel aid still dividing Democrats as vote nears

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As the House nears a Saturday vote on a foreign aid plan that’s driven a wedge within the fractious GOP, a Democratic worry is persisting: That they, and President Joe Biden, will pay a hefty price with their base if they don’t change their approach to Israel aid.

The recent back-and-forth of strikes between Israel and Iran, while it hiked pressure on Republicans to take up the foreign aid package, didn’t exactly dissuade progressives from their leeriness of an unconditional extension of U.S. assistance for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As some Democrats see it, they have a moral obligation to do more for Palestinians — and will suffer politically with young and Muslim voters this fall if they don’t handle the Gaza war differently.

Take the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York. He confirmed Friday that he still has not signed off on an $18 billion F-15 fighter jet sale to Israel in response to a Biden administration request that typically goes to the top members in both parties on foreign aid panels. While Meeks said he is still doing his due diligence on the F-15 deal, he also said Black voters in his district are sensitive to the treatment of Palestinians.

“The Black community, in my estimation, is always looking at — wanting to — make sure that you help those who have trouble helping themselves,” said Meeks, historically an Israel supporter, in an interview prior to the Iranian strike.

“They basically want to see a situation where folks can live side by side, and don’t understand why you don’t have a two-state solution,” he added. “I’m hearing that over and over again, because they think that’s fair.”

The House is likely to pass its Israel aid package on Saturday easily, given the level of GOP support, but the Democratic vote count will be closely watched by the administration and outside-group supporters of the Israeli government. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an advocate for separate votes on Ukraine and Israel aid, is among those preparing to vote no.

She readily described Democrats’ approach to Israel as a “vulnerability,” adding that the party performed well in 2020 “because we were thoughtful and intentional about putting together a coalition that could hold together. And that coalition depended on yes, Muslim and Arab and Palestinian votes — but also young people in general, Black folks, labor unions. It’s not just one small group of people that have a concern about what’s happening in Gaza.”

One recent March poll from Gallup found Biden with a 27 percent approval rating for his handling of the Middle East conflict. Just 47 percent of Democrats said they backed the president’s handling of the situation.

Many progressives acknowledge the need for the U.S. to support Israel against attacks from Hamas terrorists and Iran, but also question sending unconditioned aid amid the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza and refusal by the Netanyahu government to let in adequate humanitarian aid.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), said that Iran’s attack on Israel hasn’t changed his previous calls for a rethinking of U.S. strategy toward Israel.

“I am deeply troubled by what may come next in Gaza. Already the civilian death toll is unbelievably high,” McGovern said. He later indicated that he plans to vote against the Israel aid bill, describing Netanyahu as “out of control and actually undercutting Israel security.”

It’s not just liberals sounding the electoral alarm, though. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a moderate House member running for an open Senate seat, said voters skeptical of unconditional Israel aid cannot be ignored, adding that she believes the Biden team is aware of the challenge.

“Look, 13 percent of primary voters voted ‘uncommitted’ in our primary, so it’s definitely an issue,” she said. “It’s incumbent on anyone running, including myself, to make the case to those uncommitted voters that we want them to vote Democratic and not for Donald Trump.”

Her swing-state colleague, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), agreed.

“The risks are there — that’s for sure,” Kildee, who’s retiring after this Congress, said in an interview.

Republicans have been unwavering in support for Israel and Netanyahu even amid the mounting civilian toll and as the conflict stretches beyond the six-month mark — even more stridently following the Iranian attack. Most slammed Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s lengthy floor address calling for new elections in the key U.S. ally, though the Democratic leader strongly condemned the latest Iranian attack.

To be sure, not all Democrats agree that Biden is failing. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said Biden is doing “a great job” on Israel and that “fringies” ought to factor in that hurting Biden at the polls helps Trump — whose handling of Israel policy would displease them more.

“Anyone that now is trying to argue for ‘uncommitted’ or abandon Biden, if you’re going to play with that fire you’re going to own that burn,” he said. “Guess what? If Trump wins, then you can celebrate the Muslim ban version 2.0. There’s so much at stake right now, so much.”

Connor O’Brien and Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.