WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is conveying different messages about the war in the Middle East to pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli Americans, according to copies of official White House correspondence obtained by NBC News.
While one letter emphasizes Biden’s support for Israel against the “pure evil” of terrorism, the other focuses on the administration’s work to protect civilians in Gaza.
Although the two letters do not contradict each other (nor do they contradict Biden’s own policies), it is not common for the White House correspondence office to produce versions of a letter on the same topic that differ so dramatically in emphasis. But they reflect the political tightrope Biden is trying to navigate as the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian elements of his coalition fight over war.
The response form sent to people who support Israel, generated by the White House presidential correspondence office and self-signed with Biden’s name, invokes the Holocaust in connection with the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, pledges continued support for Israel and promises to prioritize the return of the hostages.
“The people of Israel lived through a moment of pure evil” that “resurrected horrible memories” and represented the “deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust,” Biden writes.
“The United States supports Israel,” he continues. “We will continue to ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself against terrorism in accordance with international humanitarian law. I will put every resource at its disposal to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas, including our fellow Americans.”
But the reflected response to pro-Palestinian letter writers makes no mention of evil, the Holocaust, or American support for Israel. Instead, it focuses on providing aid to the Palestinians.
“We must always condemn terrorism when we see it,” Biden writes to pro-Palestinian correspondents. “But Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. It does not defend the dignity of the Palestinians. We mourn the many innocent Palestinians who have been killed.”
He goes on to explain that this is why his administration “is working closely with its partners to ensure that life-saving assistance, including food, water and medicine, can urgently reach innocent Palestinians in Gaza” and emphasizes that “the United States unequivocally advocates protecting of civilians during conflicts.”
There are common sentiments in the letters, including Biden’s promises to seek protection of civilians, ensure humanitarian assistance for “innocent Palestinians” and work toward a two-state solution, as well as calling Hamas a terrorist organization.
“Anyone who reads the different opinions we are seeing in the mail will see that these letters need two separate responses,” said a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “This is a complex issue that involves nuance and sensitivity. Having unique responses allows us to better address the various concerns and sensitivities raised in these incoming letters.”
Biden has seen “representative samples” of incoming mail, the official said, adding that the multiple-response approach “is standard for many complex topics and is designed to be respectful and informative to the writer.”
The divided message reflects Biden’s need to appeal to both sides of a schism in his party that has been exacerbated by the war. Less than a year away from facing re-election, he cannot afford to further anger Democratic voters.
A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released this week shows that a majority of Democrats (56%) now believe Israel’s response to the terrorist attack has been “too much.” That figure represents a 35% increase four days after the attack, when Israel had not yet launched its ground invasion of Gaza. In Michigan, a crucial swing state with large Arab-American and Muslim communities, some Democrats are threatening to withhold their votes from Biden over his support of Israel. And pro-Palestinian protesters clashed with Capitol Police this week after they blocked access to the Democratic National Committee, providing a stark reminder of what was at stake for the party.
There appears to be little safe political space for Biden right now within his own party, and he risks further alienating people with passionate views on the war in the Middle East if he does not acknowledge their concerns.
On many issues, the White House sends a single form letter in response to people who write to ask about the president’s position or to express their own views on a particular issue.
Sometimes, on particularly controversial issues, the White House drafts different versions of a letter to accentuate the president’s agreement with one side or downplay his disagreement with the other, said a person who worked in the correspondence office in a previous administration. .
“Each office deliberates on this,” this person said, noting that the possibility of versions being made public usually deters wide variation.
“It’s more of an art and an instinct than a science,” the person said. “We usually err on the side of saying less to everyone so we can say the same thing to everyone.”
Biden can rest assured that he will not be accused of saying the same thing to everyone based on these two letters.
They are so precisely chosen that even Biden’s call to fight hate, an echo of his comments in an Oval Office speech last month, uses reverse structures.
“Here at home, I have directed my team to identify, prevent and disrupt internal threats that could arise against Jewish, Muslim, Arab or any other communities,” he writes to supporters of Israel’s actions. “There is no place for hate in our world. Not against Jews, not against Muslims, not against anyone.”
But in the letter to pro-Palestinian Americans, he writes: “I have directed my team to identify, prevent and disrupt any internal threats that may arise against the Muslim, Arab, Palestinian, Jewish or any other community. There is no room for” For hate in the United States. Not against Muslims. Not against the Arabs. Not against the Palestinians. Not against the Jews. “Not against anyone.”
Likewise, Biden reverses anti-Semitism and Islamophobia later in the two versions, emphasizing the latter in the letter to pro-Palestinian correspondents.
And in the pro-Israel letter, the Palestinians are omitted from the list of peoples Biden wants to protect from hate.
The pro-Israel letter reviewed by NBC News was dated Nov. 1. The pro-Palestinian letter was dated November 8.
Even the final lines are written very clearly to appeal to the opposing sides.
“And we will continue to hold in our hearts all the families in our country and around the world who are mourning the loss of a loved one, a piece of their soul, in this tragedy,” Biden writes to the pro-Palestinian group.
“And we will continue to reject terrorism and its indiscriminate evil, just as we always have,” he writes to those writing letters in support of Israel.