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Schumer calls Netanyahu an obstacle to peace, calls for new Israeli elections

The Senate majority leader’s speech drew criticism from across the political spectrum in Israel, and from mainstream Jewish organizations at home

Aaron Schwartz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the media during a weekly press conference in the Capitol Building in Washington DC, on Tuesday, March 12, 2024.

Senate Majority Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Thursday described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a major obstacle to long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace, and said that Israel should hold new elections once the war in Gaza begins to wind down. Without a change in course from Israel, Schumer said, the U.S. might have to use “leverage” to compel a change.

In a sharply worded Senate floor speech, Schumer outlined what he described as the major obstacles to peace: Netanyahu, Hamas and extremist Palestinians, radical right-wing Israelis and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He also offered condemnation for the left and the media internationally whom he said have unfairly and maliciously maligned Israel, expressing his continued opposition to calls for an immediate and permanent cease-fire.

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7,” Schumer said. “The world has changed — radically — since then, and the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past.”

He said Israel should hold a new election “once the war starts to wind down,” emphasizing that the U.S. must “let the chips fall where they may” but warning that leaving the current coalition in power could force the U.S. to pursue coercive measures against Israel.

“If Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current coalition remains in power after the war begins to wind down, and continues to pursue dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing U.S. standards for assistance, then the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course,” Schumer said. 

He added that the Israeli government’s current policies — including its prosecution of the war in Gaza and its longer-term opposition to a two-state solution — would leave Israel as a global “pariah,” though also emphasizing that “the United States’ bond with Israel is unbreakable.”

“If extremists continue to unduly influence Israeli policy, then the administration should use the tools at its disposal to make sure our support for Israel is aligned with our broader goal of achieving long-term peace and stability in the region,” the New York senator continued.

Schumer’s remarks come amid calls from a growing portion of his Senate Democratic caucus for the Biden administration to impose additional conditions on U.S. aid to Israel, with some calling for the U.S. to suspend aid entirely. Some have argued that Israel is already in outright violation of U.S. foreign aid law. His remarks also come alongside growing criticism of Israel from President Joe Biden and members of his administration.

But a source familiar with Schumer’s thinking insisted that his references to “leverage” were not an endorsement of calls to condition U.S. aid to Israel. The source noted that no specific references to conditioning aid appear in the otherwise detailed and explicit speech, and said that “those suggesting so are taking thoughtful and specific ideas out of context for self gain.”

Schumer’s speech may help appease some on the left, but it seems less likely to make a major impact on Israel’s population; despite Schumer’s assertions that Israelis have “lost their confidence” in the government, foreign criticism of Netanyahu has often served to shore up his political support and his coalition at home.

The New York senator blasted Netanyahu for his alliance with right-wing ministers, accusing the prime minister of having “lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.”

He said that current policy of Israel’s government, which he described as a pursuit of a de facto one-state solution through settlement expansion and rejection of peace, “guarantees certain war forever,” would isolate and endanger the global Jewish community and would “further rupture [Israel’s] relationship with the rest of the world” and further undermine its support abroad.

In the near term, he also criticized Netanyahu for the civilian death toll in Gaza — which he connected to Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and for refusing to commit to humanitarian protections as part of an operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah or work on a day-after plan and long-term peace plan.

He said that both the U.S. and Israel have an “obligation to do better” in pursuit of the war. He said the U.S. must pressure Israel to let more aid into Gaza.

Schumer’s speech marks a notable change of pace from his rhetoric in recent months, and as recently as earlier this week, at an AIPAC conference.

The Senate Democratic leader expressed particular and specific scorn for Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, describing them as “the worst examples” of right-wing Israeli radical extremism, arguing that “no progress” toward peace is possible while they remain in the governing coalition and continue to back violence by Israeli settlers.

Such radical right-wing Israelis, Schumer argued, “while not equivalent… seek the same goal” as Hamas and other Palestinian radicals — to push the other group from the land.

At the same time, the Senate majority leader dismissed arguments made by some of Israel’s strongest critics in the U.S. and internationally.

A binational one-state solution that would “have Palestinian voters be the protectors of Israeli Jews would be a bridge too far to accept,” putting Jewish Israelis in danger, and would deprive Jews of their own right to their own state, he said.

He similarly said that calls for an unconditional right of return for all Palestinians are “a fatal impediment” to the pursuit of a two-state solution.

Schumer blasted those “especially on the left” who “acknowledge and even celebrate [the] right to statehood for every group but the Jews,” adding that it’s “unfounded, absurd and offensive” to describe Jews as colonial settlers in Israel, or Israel as a “20th-century contrivance.” 

He said it’s similarly “inaccurate, offensive and unhelpful” to claim that “there is no such thing as Palestinians.”

Schumer slammed as “morally repugnant” those who have sought to defend or celebrate Hamas. He rejected the notion of an immediate permanent cease-fire, which he said would only lead to continued Hamas attacks. 

He offered support for talks toward a “temporary cease-fire” along the lines being negotiated by the Biden administration, which Hamas has repeatedly rejected. Any long-term settlement that leaves Hamas in power or gives power to other extremist Palestinians is “unacceptable,” he continued.

And he criticized the media and left-wing activists for what he described as efforts to blame Israel alone for Palestinian casualties in Gaza, calling this characterization “unfair, one-sided and deliberately manipulative.” Such narratives, Schumer said, gloss over Hamas’ attack, which started the war, and the terror group’s deliberate efforts to maximize Palestinian civilian casualties and hide inside humanitarian sites.

“It bothers me deeply that most media outlets covering this war, and many protesters opposing it, have placed the blame for civilian casualties entirely on Israel,” Schumer said. “All too often, in the media and at protests, it is never noted that Hamas has gone to great lengths to make themselves inseparable from the civilian population of Gaza by using Palestinians as human shields.”

The media, Schumer argued, must be clear about these tactics by Hamas, and protesters should denounce the terrorist group as well.

The Senate leader also condemned the PA’s Abbas, saying that he must step down following a long history of corruption, antisemitism and failure, and allow a reform process to begin in the Palestinian Authority. And he said that the Palestinian people and leaders more broadly must disavow Hamas.

Schumer said that Arab states including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan should use their leverage to push Abbas out of power and implement a “gradual succession plan,” as well as help to rebuild Gaza and create an environment where more productive Palestinian leadership can, in the longer term, emerge.

He expressed confidence that, presented with “real” prospects for peace and a two-state solution, both Israelis and Palestinians would “moderate,” reject one-state aspirations and come together in support of a potential deal.

Echoing other Senate Democrats, Schumer said that a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal and a deeper Saudi-U.S. relationship can be the “catalyst” for a “grand bargain in the Middle East” that would ultimately include a two-state solution.

But he emphasized that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations must step up to help “actively guide the Palestinians toward a more peaceful future” if they hope to expand their relationship with the United States.

A spokesman for Netanyahu’s Likud party said in response that “Israel is not a banana republic, rather it is an independent democracy that is proud to have chosen Prime Minister Netanyahu…who is leading a determined policy that is supported by the vast majority of the nation.”

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog reacted to Schumer’s speech, saying in a statement, “It is unhelpful, all the more so as Israel is at war against the genocidal terror organization Hamas, to comment on the domestic political scene of a democratic ally. It is counterproductive to our common goals.”

Netanyahu’s domestic political opponents, including war cabinet minister Benny Gantz — who has aspirations to replace Netanyahu as Prime Minister — and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett likewise rejected Schumer’s speech.

Gantz called it a “mistake” and “incorrect and unacceptable.”

Opposition Leader and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, however, said that the speech “is proof that one by one Netanyahu is losing Israel’s biggest supporters in the US. What’s worse — he’s doing it on purpose.”

He said it shows that Netanyahu is “causing heavy damage to the national effort to win the war and maintain Israel’s security.”

Schumer’s Republican counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) condemned the speech in his own floor remarks.

“The Jewish state of Israel deserves an ally that acts like one,” McConnell said. “The people of Israel, at home and in captivity, deserve America’s support. And Israel’s unity government and security cabinet deserve the deference befitting a sovereign country.”

He described Palestinian terrorist groups as the obstacles to peace, and said that “foreign observers who cannot keep these clear distinctions ought to refrain from weighing in.”

McConnell suggested that Schumer’s “unprecedented” comments calling for new elections and Netanyahu’s ouster amount to interference in Israel’s democracy, of the type that Schumer and others have “hyperventialte[d] about in our own democracy.”

“Israel is not a colony of America, whose leaders serve at the pleasure of the party in power in Washington,” he said. “Only Israeli citizens should have a say in who runs their government. This is the very definition of democracy and sovereignty.”

He also argued that Schumer’s comments won’t ultimately appease the far left, which, McConnell said, opposes Israel’s existence as a nation, and not just Netanyahu.

Other Republicans reacted similarly, accusing Schumer of abandoning Israel and the Jewish community, and siding with Iran and Hamas.

Senate Democrats have mostly reacted positively to Schumer’s remarks — some echoing his calls for Netanyahu’s ouster — although some pro-Israel stalwarts have stopped short of endorsing his calls for new elections in Israel.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA), who hasn’t been shy about publicly rejecting the administration’s criticisms of Israel’s military strategy, declined to do the same for Schumer’s speech.

“I agree with 99% of what was in that,” Fetterman told reporters, when asked whether he agreed with Schumer’s call for new elections. “I respect everything that he says. And it’s not necessary for me to agree with 100% of what he says… I really agree with the vast majority of what he [said]. I thought he said really important things that need to be said more.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that Israel might need new leadership post-Oct. 7, but stopped short of directly endorsing new elections.

“Senator Schumer laid out a comprehensive plan. I give him a lot of credit for spelling out the historic issues and Israel’s needs,” Cardin told JI. “Oct. 7 changed the political landscape in Israel, no question about it. So what democracies do is they elect their leaders. I think what Senator Schumer’s saying [is] it’s now time for the Israelis to speak as to who will represent them as they move forward in peace.”

Pressed on whether that means he wants to see new elections, Cardin told reporters, “that’s up to the Israelis to determine how they handle this, I’m not going to tell them how to go about it.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) said that Schumer’s comments could prompt him to make a new effort to pass a standalone Israel aid bill.

An attempt to do so failed earlier this year because there were not enough Democrats supporting the bill to pass it by a two-thirds majority on the House floor, and key Republicans on the House Rules Committee — whose support would be necessary to bring the bill up for a simple-majority vote — opposed the measure because the Israel funding wasn’t offset with other funding cuts. It’s unclear how Schumer’s speech would change either of those factors.

AIPAC also rejected Schumer’s comments. Schumer gave a well-received speech to the pro-Israel group just this week. 

“Israel is an independent democracy that decides for itself when elections are held and chooses its own leaders. America must continue to stand with our ally Israel and ensure it has the time and resources it needs to win this war,” the group said in a statement. “Hamas bears sole responsibility for this conflict. The hope for a brighter future for the Middle East begins with Israel’s decisive defeat of Hamas.”

The American Jewish Committee likewise said it does not “believe it is appropriate for U.S. officials to try to dictate the electoral future of any ally.” 

But it praised him for “clearly putting Israel’s security and the plight of the hostages front and center, underscoring the need for new Palestinian leadership, and emphasizing Hamas’s horrific brutality and disregard for the wellbeing of the Palestinian people.”

J Street, meanwhile, praised Schumer’s speech. The group’s director of government affairs, Hannah Morris, said that it “signals a historic shift from those in the Democratic party who care deeply about Israel’s future.”

“He showed clear recognition that US policy needs to change, that we must seek to shape better Israeli and Palestinian policy by more forcefully using our leverage. That we must do more to press the Netanyahu government to live up to our shared values,” Morris said.

“That we must stand up to extremists and those seeking to further only their own political survival at the expense of their own people’s future. This was a forceful call for President Biden to press forward with a regional peace agreement resulting in a viable Palestinian state.”

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