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Schumer calls Netanyahu obstacle to peace, urges new elections

Israel-Hamas war comes amid shift among senior Senate Democrats

The Senate majority leader's criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was the strongest rebuke to date by a senior elected U.S. official of Netanyahu's handling of the war with Hamas.
The Senate majority leader's criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was the strongest rebuke to date by a senior elected U.S. official of Netanyahu's handling of the war with Hamas. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer sharply criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday and urged Israel to hold elections to choose new leadership, marking the strongest rebuke of Israeli policies by a senior elected U.S. official and the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S.

“I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel, at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government,” Schumer said in a floor speech. “I also believe a majority of the Israeli public will recognize the need for change, and I believe that holding a new election once the war starts to wind down would give Israelis an opportunity to express their vision for the post-war future.”

The New York Democrat said Netanyahu and his “radical right-wing” allies in Israeli government and society are obstacles to peace, along with the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu’s public standing in Israel has plummeted as many there blame his policies for the government and military being caught unaware when Hamas launched its terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 Israelis in the largest single-day loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust.

Just 15 percent of surveyed Israelis want Netanyahu to stay on as prime minster once the war with Hamas is over, a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found in early January. But more than half supported his government’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip as necessary for securing the release of the remaining Israeli hostages held by Hamas, Reuters reported.

While unhappiness with Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, has been steadily growing in the Democratic Party since the Obama administration, Schumer’s public break stands out. He has for years been the leader of the congressional Democratic old guard in support for Israel.

Senate Democratic shift

Schumer’s criticism, particularly if Netanyahu remains in power, is the latest sign of weakening in one of Israel’s most critical national security assets: ironclad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. Other long-time Senate Democratic supporters are leaving office or rethinking how they show their support.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey is going to trial for the second time this spring on federal corruption charges and his path to reelection looks weak. Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia is retiring, and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, who is also retiring, applauded Schumer for his speech on Thursday.

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Appropriations Chair Patty Murray of Washington have been more willing to criticize Netanyahu’s policies, particularly over treatment of Palestinian civilians.

Schumer said Netanyahu’s opposition to a two-state solution with the Palestinians is a key reason the prime minister is an impediment to resolving the decades-long conflict.

“They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” Schumer said. “If Israel were to not only maintain the status quo, but go beyond that and tighten its control over Gaza and the West Bank, as some in the current Netanyahu administration have suggested — in effect creating a de facto single state — then what reasonable expectation can we have that Hamas and their allies will lay down their arms? It would mean constant war.”

Schumer, and the Democrats who support his call for elections in Israel, are stepping into delicate waters given traditional U.S. government reticence around being seen as backing one candidate or party over another in foreign elections. His comment also comes as Congress works on a supplemental aid package that would include $14 billion in mostly weapons support for Israel.

The White House responded neutrally to Schumer’s comments.

“We know that leader Schumer feels strongly about this,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said during a press gaggle. “We’re going to stay focused to make sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself while doing everything they can to avoid civilian casualties.”

The Biden administration on Thursday announced new sanctions on three more Israelis and two of their businesses, which the State Department said were involved in extremist settler violence in the West Bank targeting Palestinians.

Republicans condemn remarks

GOP leaders were quick to condemn Schumer for attempting to interfere in Israel’s domestic affairs.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., took a break from his party’s annual retreat in West Virginia to call an impromptu news conference to respond.

“We want to speak very clearly and concisely to say that this is not only highly inappropriate, it’s just plain wrong — for an American leader to play such a divisive role in Israeli politics, while our closest ally in the region is in an existential battle for its very survival,” Johnson said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the floor to respond to Schumer.

“It is grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about foreign interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of a democratically elected leader of Israel,” he said. “We should not treat fellow democracies this way at all.”

Added Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., who is seeking to succeed McConnell as Senate GOP leader after the November elections: “I just think it’s a big mistake for us to try and dictate what’s happening in a good friend and an ally who has been viciously attacked by a terrorist organization and right now is fighting for their very survival.”

International condemnation of Netanyahu has grown over the last five months despite initial sympathy over the atrocities committed by Hamas in October. But the bombing campaign of Gaza, which has killed over 30,000 people, and an aid blockade that the United Nations says has left a quarter of the enclave’s population on the brink of famine, have left Israel increasingly isolated with only a few meaningful major allies left, foremost among them the U.S.

“I applaud Sen. Schumer for covering the entire challenges that we have, putting it in a historic perspective,” Cardin said to reporters on Thursday. “There can be no peace in the Middle East unless Israel is secure, Hamas cannot be a part of it. …We’ve all believed there is no possibility for peace in the region if there’s not two states. So, we also recognize that there’s not going to be any investments in the region by the Arab countries unless there is a clear path toward two states.”

Justin Papp and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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