An education department official resigned this week, and 17 staffers sent an anonymous letter calling for a ceasefire
Dissent inside the Biden administration over the president’s Gaza policy is growing, with a public resignation this week of a Department of Education official, and a letter signed by more than a dozen Biden campaign staffers calling for a ceasefire and the conditioning of aid to Israel.
“It’s pretty extraordinary levels of dissent,” said Josh Paul, a career official working on arms sales at the state department who resigned in protest in October, of the mounting signs of discontent. “I am hearing in recent weeks from people who are thinking more seriously about resigning.”
Tariq Habash, the Department of Education official, also says that he has heard from many more officials than he had anticipated who are contemplating their own exits. “It speaks to the continued shift and concerns about our current policies,” he said. “I hope it resonates with the president and the people who are making policy decisions on this issue that is affecting millions of lives.”
Habash, who is Palestinian American, is the first political appointee from the Biden administration to bring his resignation to the media and publish an open letter. “I cannot stay silent as this administration turns a blind eye to the atrocities committed against innocent Palestinian lives,” he wrote in announcing his resignation from his position as adviser to its policy planning office. In the letter, he objected to the president not pressuring Israel “to halt the abusive and ongoing collective punishment tactics” that have led to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He also took issue with administration leaders’ repetition of “unverified claims that systemically dehumanize Palestinians”.
A day before Habash quit, 17 current campaign staffers anonymously called for a ceasefire and conditioning military aid to Israel. Their letter urged Biden to take “concrete steps to end the conditions of apartheid, occupation, and ethnic cleansing that are the root causes of this conflict”. An organizer of the letter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “We know we’re not alone in this, and there is a very big coalition asking for the same thing.”
These are just the latest internal criticisms of Biden. Last month, a group of administration officials hid their faces with masks and scarves and staged a vigil in front of the White House in support of a ceasefire. More than 500 alumni of Biden’s presidential campaign signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire in November, and congressional aides and USAid employees sent their own petitions this fall. Current state department officials who do not want to risk their jobs by speaking out have increasingly taken advantage of sanctioned routes to criticizing the president, by filing dissent memos to the secretary of state.
The Guardian spoke to several current political appointees and career staffers from the state department who are critical of the administration’s approach but declined to speak on the record. Some say they are trying to create change from within. Others say that the president’s entire Middle East approach is being guided by the White House and in many sense the president himself, defying the recommendations of policy experts.
Of Habash’s resignation, the White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said that “people have the right to voice their opinion”. She and the state department directed questions to the Department of Education, whose spokesperson wished Habash the “best in his future endeavors”.
Biden’s advisers sought to diffuse internal dissatisfaction with a series of listening sessions at the White House and the state department in October and November. “It’s a sign of strength that an administration not only hears but welcomes dissent from within,” said Emily Horne, a former spokesperson for the Biden White House.
Since the first days after Hamas’s 7 October attacks, the administration has shifted some of its rhetoric. Biden is now talking more about the humanitarian catastrophe than he was during the initial days of Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza and has repeatedly urged Israel to take steps to protect civilians. But the acute situation in Gaza caused by Israel’s ongoing operations, which have killed more than 22,000 Palestinians, along with risks of famine and severely restricted medical care, have overshadowed any purported shifts in US policy.
This week, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will travel to the Middle East “to underscore the importance of protecting civilian lives in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza”. The state department criticized statements from Israeli ministers who have called for the relocation of Palestinians from Gaza. But even that condemnation came just days after the secretary of state bypassed Congress to rush arms to Israel.
“There is a feeling among Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in government that the administration does’t take their opinions or dissent seriously,” said Jasmine El-Gamal, a former civil servant who worked on Middle East policy at the Department of Defense during the Obama years.
Paul, the senior state department career official who resigned in protest in October, said he’s in contact with several people currently in government who are thinking about leaving over Biden’s handling of Israel. “If there was universal healthcare, there would be more people willing to resign,” he said, in reference to many government employees’ reliance on their jobs for medical care.
Habash’s resignation, coupled with the 3 January letter from current campaign staff, comes amid fears that Biden could be losing important members of his base as the 2024 presidential election begins in earnest. Even former Obama administration officials now hosting popular podcasts like Pod Save America have become vocally critical of Biden. The campaigners’ letter said that re-election campaign “volunteers quit in droves, and people who have voted blue for decades feel uncertain about doing so for the first time ever, because of this conflict”.
For now, the dissent does not seem to be affecting Biden’s approach or that of the close-knit circle of advisers around him. A former official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, downplayed the resignations and open letters. “Some of these criticisms resonate, but I don’t see them actually making a significant difference,” they said. “The times when it matters to this administration is when it starts to play into domestic politics and becomes a concern for the next election.”
Habash says he remains aligned with much of Biden’s domestic policies, and hopes his departure pushes the president to change course on Gaza. “Our elected officials are not in touch with their base and their voters,” he warned.