An end to the bloodshed in the Israeli-Hamas conflict seemed more remote than ever on Thursday when President Joe Biden answered a question about the chances of a cease-fire by saying: “None. No possibility.”
But as Biden refuses to use his leverage over the U.S.’s Israeli allies, voters and constituents across the country are overwhelming members of his party with demands to stop the violence, which has claimed more than 11,000 lives in the past month.
Staffers from more than two dozen Democratic offices say they are receiving an unprecedented number of calls and emails demanding for members to support a cease-fire — an onslaught for which their caucus was wholly unprepared.
Following the Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel by Hamas militants, up to three weeks passed ― and the death toll from Israel’s retaliatory strikes reached the thousands ― before many offices even formulated an official response. “Let it go to voicemail” was the prevailing guidance in several offices, one staffer said.
The yawning mismatch between voters’ and members’ sentiments on this issue strikes many staffers as outrageous.
“This building is not listening,” said one Democratic aide. “I’ve never seen such a disconnect between where voters and constituents are and where Congress is, and that’s saying something because there’s always a disconnect.”
The deluge of calls is producing mixed results. Some members have called for a “humanitarian pause” as a direct result of the pressure, several staffers said. The Biden administration, which is also feeling the pressure, announced Thursday that Israel had agreed to limited daily pauses in the fighting to allow civilians to leave, with few further details available.
“It’s cold comfort, but even if members are not speaking up for a cease-fire, the calls and the letters are making a difference,” said one staffer. “They’re changing the calculations of how far some members are willing to go to support Israel.”
But many more members remain unmoved.
On Monday, roughly 50 Democrats issued a less-defined call for “a humanitarian pause of limited space and time” — but that demand was buried deep in a letter aimed at condemning the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea.” Twenty-two House Democrats joined Republicans in censuring Rep. Rashia Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American member of Congress, for using the phrase. And the House and Senate are laboring to pass roughly $14 billion in additional military aid to Israel in the coming weeks.
“This is the most I’ve ever seen people unified behind an issue and actively calling,” one staff member said.
Their office is one of many where staffers say calls for a cease-fire outnumber support for aid to Israel many times over. “This is very unprecedented,” the staffer said. “The phone doesn’t stop ringing at any point in the day.”
All the staff who spoke for this story requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Most work for Democrats, which tracks with a recent Data for Progress poll finding that 80% of Democratic voters support a cease-fire.
“This building is not listening. I’ve never seen such a disconnect between where voters and constituents are and where Congress is.”
The party’s hapless response has left staffers horrified and deeply demoralized. Many whose daily job is to speak with constituents said senior staff are handing out talking points that minimize the carnage in Gaza, or that seem designed to confuse callers about where the representative stands.
“All his statements are so vague and full of inaccessible jargon that we don’t know what his true stance is,” one staffer said of the lawmaker they work for.
In one congresswoman’s office, staff said they’re being told to claim she supports a humanitarian pause, even though she has never said so in public. Another office is sending out automated responses that state the death toll in Gaza is 3,000. That estimate is more than three weeks out of date and thousands shy of the real figures. On Monday, Gaza’s health ministry estimated that Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 10,000 people, 4,000 of them children.
Another staffer said it did not occur to her superiors that some constituents would have personal ties to Gaza, which she realized when a caller said the bombardment had just killed most of his friend’s family.
“The statement we’re authorized to use doesn’t contain any sympathy,” the staffer said. “It isn’t part of any statement to say, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” She went off script to tell the caller she was sorry.
An astounding number of callers say they are committed to never voting for their member again unless they support a cease-fire, several staffers said. Some constituents even promise to go further and mobilize friends and neighbors to vote against them.
But some members seem equally fervent in believing this will blow over.
“They weren’t going to vote for me anyway,” one lawmaker said breezily when a staff member told him about voters’ threats to stop supporting him, according to the staffer. After an aide in another office gave their member a similar warning, a superior pulled them aside and admonished them for bringing it to the member’s attention. Members and senior aides in other offices are telling staff that what seems like a stampede is actually a small group of people calling repeatedly.
Many letters are part of a targeted campaign, but by no means are those campaigns small. Yasmine Taeb ― the legislative and political director for MPower Change, a grassroots Muslim advocacy group that is lobbying members to join Bush’s cease-fire resolution ― said that as of Friday morning, there had been more than 380,000 letters sent to the House alone.
Some aides working for lawmakers opposed to a ceasefire say their superiors have warned them outright not to contradict their bosses on social media.
“There is a real feeling of being complicit.”
The aide of a member known for taking principled, unpopular votes, and who usually invites frank debates among staff, says this member is uncharacteristically quiet on the conflict, and that he cloisters with just a few top advisers. The disconnect between the silence this imposes and the outrage of constituents, and of staffers like herself, is uncanny.
“We’re being asked to pretend that every day is a normal day in the office,” the aide said.
Meanwhile, anyone who answers the phones can see the anger is not letting up. The phone rings every five minutes, said one staffer for a lawmaker who believes the outrage is “starting to die down.” The callers are growing more diverse in age, identity and party affiliation.
“The pressure is going to continue to mount and these members are going to have to figure out how to reposture themselves, because their positions are not sustainable,” one senior adviser said. “Every day this conflict looks more grotesque, more visibly catastrophic.”
On eggshells amid war crimes
Countless staff members share constituents’ sense of horror.
“There is a real feeling of being complicit,” one said. “We” — that is, Congress — “are being instrumental in the ability of Israel to wipe Palestine off the face of the earth.”
Frightened of venting their outrage in public, many are fuming anonymously in venues like Instagram’s @dear_white_staffers. “In the midst of all the uproar, the office is calm, as if everyone is walking on eggshells when there are literal war crimes happening with the help of the US government,” one contributor wrote.
On Wednesday, in an unusual rebuke of their members, more than 100 staffers staged a walkout for a cease-fire on the steps of the House of Representatives.
But inside the building, the word “cease-fire” has been “distorted into a third rail,” one Democratic aide said.
Many lawmakers fear that calling for a cease-fire will draw the wrath of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbyist group and a formidable foe to any member who opposes military aid to Israel. During last year’s midterms, AIPAC raised more money for Democrats than any other interest group. At the same time, it poured $4 million into an effort to unseat Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a self-declared Zionist, because he opposed the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank. It worked — Levin lost his primary.
“Members see members who step out of line lose their elections,” the Democratic aide said.
They sense safety in the herd.
“If only, what, 24 members are for a cease-fire, and even [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders won’t say the word, maybe they should just go with the pack,” another staff member said. “That’s the calculation.”
Their caution is demoralizing even for a workforce used to profound cynicism.
“I just wish the congresswoman could listen to these calls for one day,” a staffer told HuffPost.