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January 24, 2024

The Threat of Another Muslim Ban is No Cover for Biden

With the 2024 Presidential Election on the horizon, many who supported Joe Biden in his first contest against Donald Trump are facing a moral and political conundrum. Trump poses an existential threat to American democracy. He has pledged retribution for his political opponents, wants to resurrect powers to intern and deport immigrant communities on the basis of ideological purity tests, and threatens political violence against electoral defeat. And yet, while these unprecedented challenges to our political system guarantee many of us would never cast a ballot for the former president, many Americans have growing reservations with casting another vote for the incumbent Joe Biden. Biden has been complicit in what many credibly argue is a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians with few modern precedents, and may be on course to opening a Pandora’s box of total war across the region. 

When asked directly about the increasing number of Arab Americans who have said they will not vote for him following his backing of Israel’s brutal war against Palestinians, President Biden deflected by citing the Muslim ban. “The former President (Donald Trump) wants to put a ban on Arabs coming into the country. So we’ll make sure we understand who cares about the Arab population number one.”

Indeed, Trump promises he will reimpose and expand the Muslim ban that was instituted from his first week in office until Biden overturned it on his first day in office. But Biden – and the Democratic Party writ large – should be clear that this is not a carte blanche that will shield him from the fallout of his administration’s embrace of Netanyahu and the Israeli government as it has engaged in the wide-scale collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza.

Biden was right to make ending the Muslim ban a Day One priority for his administration, and affirmed that Trump’s discriminatory orders were “just plain wrong.” The ban ripped families apart from one another, barring Iranian, many Arab, and other nationals from securing a visa solely based on their national heritage. Visa and refugee processing still has not recovered, even though the Biden administration has made incremental progress in undoing the harmful effects. 

But as bad as blatant discrimination was under Trump, voters aren’t going to believe that two wrongs make a right, particularly given the scale of inhumane devastation we are witnessing in Gaza. More than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, the vast majority of them civilians. That includes more than 10,000 children killed in the first hundred days of the war, far surpassing the death toll among children in all conflicts globally over the past several years. Nearly the entire population of 2.2 million has been displaced and is on the brink of famine, with disease running rampant, given the blockade that has severely restricted the provision of food and medical aid. 

At times, the Biden administration has seemingly been more critical of critics of this slaughter than of the perpetrators. It dismissed calls for a ceasefire early, calling them repugnant. But when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly rejected U.S. calls for a two-state solution, Biden has dismissed them as untrue.

Now, as the conflict has spiraled over three-months, Biden has launched a new offensive in Yemen to respond to attacks on shipping lanes by the Houthis, who say their attacks will end only if Israel’s bombardment of Palestine ends. The apparent plan for a sustained bombing campaign in Yemen is in addition to Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked targets in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and tit-for-tat strikes being conducted by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria and the U.S. military. Few seriously believe that any of these challenges will be resolved militarily – and those who do are arguing for President Biden to initiate their long-desired direct confrontation with Iran, beginning with U.S. airstrikes inside Iran.

Biden is pursuing a policy that, borrowing his own words, is just plain wrong. Supporting one of the worst slaughters of civilians of the 21st century and threatening to embroil the U.S. in a disastrous regional war is wrong morally, strategically, and politically. Particularly for a President whose appeal in 2020 was his empathy, contra the narcissistic self-absorption of Trump, Biden’s bear hug of Israel amid its onslaught and perceived lack of compassion for Palestinians is something that many will not forget or forgive – and that extends well beyond those communities targeted by the Muslim ban. Particularly given that Biden carried the 2020 elections on less than 45,000 votes in the three key swing states of Michigan, Georgia, and Wisconsin, Biden’s hawkish policies risk driving a stake through the heart of his reelection campaign.

There should be no illusions that Donald Trump would pursue anything approaching a moral policy toward Israel’s war in Gaza. In fact, the chief problems with Biden’s Middle East policy is that it is a continuity of the Trump administration’s disastrous approach to the region: providing Israel a carte blanche, pursuing normalization deals between Arab autocrats and Israel, and pushing closer toward war with Iran. Trump himself has threatened to not just reimpose a Muslim ban on Day One of his administration but also expand it to include ideological screenings, blocking not just those deemed to have anti-American sentiments but those who are deemed to be anti-Israel or have “sympathies” toward jihadists. He has bragged that he will deport people who have protested against the war. Such policies would not just be anti-democratic but anti-American to their core, making allegiance to a foreign state part of the process of becoming an American.

But Biden can’t simply rest on a ban he rescinded on Day One of his administration, and the threat of its return, to deflect righteous anger and concerns about what policies he is pursuing now. Instead, Biden must rediscover two elements that led him to victory in 2020. First is his empathy, including for Palestinians suffering unspeakable horrors inflicted with U.S. weapons and political cover, and push for a sustainable ceasefire that halts the killing and escalation toward regional war. Second is to truly be an antithesis to Trump and his disastrous policies, including in the Middle East. That will entail taking a tough line toward Netanyahu and the Israeli government and abandoning the pursuit of superficial normalization accords in favor of the hard work of addressing the root causes of conflict in the region. If he fails, Trump will likely regain the White House, with disastrous ramifications that go far beyond discriminatory visa policies.

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