Democrats in Congress, torn between their support for Israel in its war with Hamas and concern about civilian suffering in Gaza, are struggling with how far to go in calling for measures to mitigate civilian casualties as the left wing of the party escalates pressure for a cease-fire.
In recent days, several House and Senate Democrats have urged temporary humanitarian pauses to facilitate aid deliveries of food, water and fuel to the Gaza Strip, echoing the Biden administration. They have argued that the pauses are necessary to keep an already dire humanitarian crisis from worsening, and to negotiate the release of more than 200 hostages, including Americans, being held in Gaza since Hamas waged a bloody attack on civilians and soldiers in southern Israel on Oct. 7.
But few have embraced progressive Democrats’ demands for a complete and lasting cease-fire, even as pro-Palestinian protesters took to the streets over the weekend to demand a total cessation of hostilities. Most Democrats, including some of Congress’s most influential liberal leaders, have argued that a full cease-fire would give Hamas time to regroup and launch another assault on Israel.
“You’ve got to have a pause in the bombing. You’ve got to take care of the immediate disaster. Israel’s got to change its strategy,” Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and a prominent Jewish progressive, said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I don’t know how you can have a cease-fire — permanent cease-fire — with an organization like Hamas, which is dedicated to turmoil and chaos and destroying the state of Israel.”
The comments drew a backlash from some progressive activists that highlighted the cross pressures Democrats are facing on the issue. Their dilemma, which mirrors the one President Biden has been facing as he confronts growing hostility on the left to his backing of Israel, could carry political consequences for the party overall. Democrats will be heavily reliant on strong support and turnout among their liberal core supporters in their push to hold the White House and the Senate, and win control of the House, in the 2024 elections.
Richard J. Durbin of Illinois last week became the first Democratic senator to call for a cease-fire, which he said he would support under certain conditions, including Hamas first agreeing to release hostages. His decision to do so reflected a shift underway on Capitol Hill that has coincided with changes in Mr. Biden’s public messaging on Israel.
Mr. Biden has been resolute about declaring that the United States stands in solidarity with Israel. But in the last several days, he and top administration officials have emphasized their efforts to persuade Israeli officials of the need for humanitarian pauses to allow the United Nations to deliver aid to civilians.
The change in tone comes as progressive polls indicate that a majority of Democratic voters favor a cease-fire, as well as evidence that younger people and people of color are critical of the Biden administration’s stance on the war.
Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the only Palestinian American in Congress, put a sharp point on the disconnect last week in a video that accused Mr. Biden of supporting a genocide in Gaza and threatening him with electoral consequences in 2024 if he failed to call for a cease-fire.
“Mr. President, the American people are not with you on this one,” Ms. Tlaib said.
International law defines genocide as a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in times of war or peace. Top Israeli officials have said they are targeting Hamas, not the Palestinian people.
The video also featured pro-Palestinian protesters in Michigan chanting “from the river to the sea,” a rallying cry referring to the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that many regard as calling for the eradication of Israel.
The backlash from other Democrats to the slogan, which the Anti-Defamation League considers antisemitic, was severe.
Representative Elissa Slotkin, also a Michigan Democrat, insisted in a series of posts on the social media platform X that Ms. Tlaib apologize.
“None of us, especially elected leaders, should amplify language that inflames a tense situation & makes it harder for our communities to find common ground,” wrote Ms. Slotkin, a centrist who is Jewish. “If I knew that a phrase I’d used had hurt any of my constituents, I would apologize & retract it, no matter its origin. I’d ask the same from you.”
Mr. Biden has requested that humanitarian aid for Palestinians be part of any package to send military assistance to Israel.
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida, also criticized Ms. Tlaib’s use of the slogan, as well as her calls for a cease-fire.
“This phrase means eradicating Israel and Jews. Period,” she wrote in a post on X. “Only a return of hostages, eliminating Hamas and liberating Gaza from oppressive terror will save civilian lives and secure the peace, justice and dignity you seek.”
Ms. Tlaib defended the slogan as “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.” In a statement, she also accused her colleagues of focusing on pillorying her at the expense of saving lives.