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Social media in meltdown after Trump and Biden defend pro-Israel credentials in first debate

Presidential candidates traded barbs over the war but neither side mentioned the death toll or devastation unleashed on Gaza
US President Joe Biden and former US President Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlanta (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP).
US President Joe Biden and former US President Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlanta (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP).

The highly anticipated first US presidential debate received a deluge of criticism from social media users on Thursday, after President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump traded barbs over Israel's war on Gaza and attempted to defend their pro-Israel credentials.

The war, which is now in its ninth month and has claimed the lives of at least 38,000 Palestinians, was only briefly addressed during the 90-minute event, despite triggering protests across the US that have gripped university campuses for months.

Issues concerning the war first erupted around the 30-minute mark when Trump criticised Biden's foreign policy in an exchange about the war in Ukraine and said that if he was still in office Russian President Vladimir Putin "never would have invaded Ukraine, never – just like Israel would have never been invaded in a million years by Hamas, because Iran was broke with me".

Biden responded by calling Trump's remarks "malarkey" and said Trump did nothing for American troops wounded by Iranian forces in retaliatory attacks following the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

In a follow-up question about the war on Gaza, Biden then falsely claimed that every party but Hamas had agreed to his ceasefire proposal and that he had secured an across-the-board agreement for his three-stage plan to end the war, including from Israel.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly said he opposes a permanent ceasefire agreement.

Biden then said that 'the only thing I've denied Israel was 2,000-pound bombs, they don't work in very well-populated areas – they kill a lot of innocent people. We're providing Israel with all the weapons they need, and when they need them."

He then said that he's "the guy" who mobilised US allies to stop Iran's missile attack on Israel.

"No one was hurt, not one Israeli was accidentally killed and it stopped," he said, referring to the interception of more than 300 ballistic missiles and drones launched by Iran on 13 April. "We saved Israel. We are the biggest producer of support for Israel of anyone in the world."

He reiterated his opinion that Hamas had been "greatly weakened" by Israel, adding that the group "should be eliminated".

Responding to Biden, Trump criticised the US president for not being supportive enough of Israel's war on Gaza, disparaging Palestinians in the process.

"Israel is the one that wants to keep going. He said the only one who wants to keep going is Hamas. Actually, Israel is the one that wants to keep going, and you should let them go and let them finish the job," he said.

"He doesn't want to do it. He's become like a Palestinian, but they don't like him because he's a very bad Palestinian, he's a weak one," Trump said, which garnered significant backlash online. 

"Two elderly Zionists compete over who can better execute a genocide in Palestine, while mocking the victims, and this is called a 'presidential debate'," one social media user said.

"A US president just turned 'Palestinian' into a slur to attack another US president. 'Palestinian' was used as a slur against the person funding and enabling the genocide of the Palestinian people," prominent Palestinian activist, poet and journalist Mohammed El-Kurd said.

American Muslim scholar and public speaker Imam Omar Suleiman said: "The truth is [Biden] isn't just a national embarrassment because of his incoherence, but because of his remarkable clarity when it comes to being committed to a genocide." 

Later, when asked whether he'd support the creation of an independent Palestinian state, Trump said "I'd have to see".

Thousands of social media users criticised Biden for his performance and said he stumbled through the debate, with many of his answers appearing "incoherent" and "unintelligible", and many pointing to his "raspy" voice.

Meanwhile, Trump came across as confident, despite making several false claims which went unchallenged from Biden and the presenters.

American comedian and writer Jon Stewart mocked both of the candidates on The Daily Show election special immediately following the debate, suggesting they should consider using performance-enhancing drugs.

"As much of it as they can get. If performance-enhancing drugs will improve their lucidity, their ability to solve problems and in one of the candidates' cases," referring to Trump, "improve their truthfulness, morality and malignant narcissism, then suppository away," Stewart said. 

Near the debate's end, co-moderator Dana Bash questioned the candidates' fitness for office given their ages. 

Diverting from policy discussions, the debate veered into a bizarre argument when Trump defended his health by citing recent golf championships, suggesting it required him "to be quite smart", while also claiming Biden lacked the physical fitness and prowess for the sport. 

Biden responded by challenging Trump to a golf match under the condition that Trump carry his own bag. The exchange perplexed viewers unfamiliar with golf and sparked debates on social media about its relevance in a presidential debate.

One user captured the absurdity, stating: "Biden started calling Trump fat and then they started arguing over who is better at golf. We are so cooked."

Author Stephen King also criticised the commercialisation of the debate, lamenting how networks packaged it as entertainment akin to a boxing match, which he believed undermined democracy.

Following the debate, when asked about concerns over his performance and calls from supporters to withdraw, Biden dismissed them, telling reporters: "No. It's difficult to debate someone who lies. The New York Times documented 26 lies," adding that he had a sore throat.

ABC News is set to host the second debate between Biden and Trump on 10 September.

However, with the contentious exchanges and moments of confusion dominating the first debate, viewers have been left feeling apprehensive and uncertain about the outcome of the next one.

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