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What Biden and Republicans are saying about Israel

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Biden has been full-throated in his support for Israel after the deadly attacks by Hamas. He has described in detail how Jewish civilians were killed in the attack. And he called it the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop. There's never justification for terrorist attacks.

CHANG: But this weekend the president began to talk more about the situation on the ground in Gaza.

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BIDEN: The humanitarian crisis in Gaza - innocent Palestinian families. And the vast majority have nothing to do with Hamas.

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BIDEN: They're being used as human shields.

CHANG: We wanted to explore this shift in tone and also to talk about what Republicans are saying about the war. And to do that, we're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what should we make of the way that President Biden has chosen to talk about this conflict? Like, what do you notice about the way he's choosing his words?

LIASSON: Well, President Biden is a guy who has, over time, occasionally got twisted up in his words. But this time, he has been crystal clear about Israel. He's been about as forceful and morally clear as he's ever been. He's expressed firm support, told Israel they will get whatever help they want, that the U.S. has Israel's back. Hamas is pure evil. I think that reflects not only the bipartisan support that exists for Israel right now in the United States, but also, Biden has had a career-long identity as a supporter of Israel. He talked about meeting Golda Meir 50 years ago in 1973. Golda Meir was the fourth prime minister of Israel and the first female prime minister. So this is something that is a longstanding conviction on his part. You just heard him say there's no justification for the attack. And in that second clip, he talked about Hamas using Palestinians as human shields. So he's trying to make it clear there is no moral equivalence here between the terrorist acts of Hamas and the retaliation by Israel.

CHANG: And can you tell us more about this shift in his messaging? Like, what stands out to you?

LIASSON: Well, first, his message was all about Israel and the atrocities and how America stands behind Israel.

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: This new message is much more nuanced. It's about how important it is that Israel acts according to the rule of law, to the law of war. He's also said Israel should not reoccupy Gaza over the long term. That's something the Israelis also say they don't want to do. He's trying to put more emphasis on keeping the conflict contained, making sure it doesn't evolve into a regional conflagration involving countries like Iran. And I think he is - I don't think he's tempering his support for Israel. But this is a volatile situation that could get out of hand. And it's also not clear how long or if Israel can actually eliminate Hamas. That's their stated goal. We don't know how long it will take or if it's even possible. The Israeli defense minister told the U.S. secretary of state, Tony Blinken, that this is going to be very long and very tough. There will be a lot of casualties.

CHANG: Well, what about Republicans, I mean, especially Republicans who are running for president? How are they describing this conflict?

LIASSON: Well, there are the Republicans running for president, and then there's Donald Trump.

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: The big news, of course, was Trump's comments - he's been walking them back ever since - that Hezbollah is very smart. Bibi let us down - remarkable dissing of Israel at this moment. And he got some criticism from the other Republican candidates, which is very unusual. But they have been all over the map. There is a large and growing isolationist wing in the Republican Party but also a long history of strongly supporting Israel. You have Ron DeSantis saying all Palestinians are antisemites and shouldn't be allowed into the U.S. as refugees. You've got Tim Scott and Mike Pence saying that the U.S. should send special forces into Gaza to rescue American hostages.

CHANG: And real quick, Mara, how big of a political issue do you think this will be in the 2024 race?

LIASSON: I think that depends on how long the Israeli siege of Gaza goes on, how ugly it is. And if it looks like Israel is succeeding, it might help Biden in the 2024 elections. But the bottom line is that foreign policy is one of the things voters pay the least attention to.

CHANG: That is NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. 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.

Mara Liasson
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.