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Military aid for Israel is putting President Biden in a tight political spot at home

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, the Biden administration is moving ahead with an arms transfer to Israel worth $1 billion. Just a week ago, the White House paused a separate shipment of bombs to the country over concerns that Israel would use such weapons for an offensive in the crowded city of Rafah. This story touches U.S. foreign policy, national security and also domestic politics, since the president has faced criticism both for supporting Israel and for not supporting it enough. So we've brought in NPR senior national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How does the White House explain going ahead with this shipment while pausing the other one?

LIASSON: Yeah, it sounds confusing, and the White House has been trying to explain this. The argument is that President Biden is just trying to do what former President Ronald Reagan did in the early '80s when he delayed shipments of F-16 fighter jets to Israel because of concerns about how Israel was using those weapons in Lebanon. So now the president says, we're not going to give one shipment of 2,000-pound bombs that could be used to flatten whole neighborhoods. But the White House has tried to make the distinction that other military aid, like the ones you just described, will continue. The problem is that it's unlikely that holding up just one shipment of weapons will influence the Netanyahu government to change its conduct of the war.

INSKEEP: OK, some symbolic moves here, some substantive moves here. What do these decisions say about the president's support for Israel?

LIASSON: Well, the president has insisted before and since October 7, the Hamas attacks on Israel, that his support for Israel is ironclad. His theory was that if he staunchly supported Israel in public, he could get some clout to influence Israel in private. He's tried to convince Prime Minister Netanyahu to do two things. One is to minimize harm to civilians, to use surgical strikes on Hamas rather than dropping those big bombs. And the second thing, he wants Israel to come up with a plan for the end of the war, a strategic end game, a political, diplomatic solution. Who runs Gaza after Hamas? But Israel has yet to do either of those things. And it looks like the United States, Israel's No. 1 ally, biggest arm supplier, has very little clout with the Netanyahu government.

INSKEEP: How could that be?

LIASSON: Well, this is not the first time that Benjamin Netanyahu has frustrated an American administration. He has his own set of political interests. He wants to stay in power, and that doesn't necessarily jive with doing what the United States wants him to do.

INSKEEP: OK, so that's Israeli domestic politics. And we think that is a factor here. How do American politics factor into this? What does this mean politically for the president at home?

LIASSON: Well, the war in Gaza is causing deep divisions inside the Democratic Party. The left of the party says Biden isn't doing enough to restrain Israel. Young voters, Arab Americans in battleground states like Michigan are upset. Meanwhile, there are Democratic donors who are worried about the pause in the bomb shipments and about antisemitism on campuses. And of course, Republicans are doing their best to exploit these divisions. They have messaging bills in the House that would limit Biden's ability to put a pause on any shipments.

And the bigger political problem for Biden is that chaos anywhere - protests on college campuses, chaos on the southern border, Ukraine, the war in the Middle East - all that hurts the incumbent. And President Biden was elected to keep things calm and return them to normal. And this just plays into Donald Trump's bigger argument, which is the world is out of control, Biden isn't in command, you need a strong man like me to restore order. So for Biden, there's really no political upside unless this war ends.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much. It's good to hear your voice and appreciate your insights.

LIASSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.