Chuck Schumer calls for new elections in Israel, says Netanyahu has ‘lost his way’
New York Senator Chuck Schumer (Photo: Ron Adar/Shutterstock)

By Luke Tress
March 14, 2024

(JTA) – In a landmark speech, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “lost his way,” urged new elections in Israel, called for a two-state solution and said the United States should use its “leverage” to push for its goals in the region if Netanyahu remains in power.

“As a lifelong supporter of Israel, it has become clear to me the Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7,” Schumer said in the speech from the Senate floor on Thursday morning. “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 added, near the end of the speech, “Israel is a democracy. Five months into this conflict it is clear that Israelis need to take stock of the situation and ask, must we change course. At this critical juncture 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.”

The speech, coming from the highest-ranking elected Jewish official in U.S. history, comes amid widening cracks between President Joe Biden and Israel’s right-wing government five months into the Israel-Hamas war. It has also elicited backlash from Netanyahu and his supporters who criticized Schumer for meddling in an allied democracy’s internal affairs.

“Israel is not a banana republic but an independent democracy,” Netanyahu’s Likud party said in a statement, adding that Netanyahu’s policies — including his wartime leadership and opposition to Palestinian statehood — were “supported by a great majority of the people.”

The statement added, “We expect Senator Schumer to respect the elected government of Israel and not undermine it. This is always true, but especially in a time of war.”

White House spokesperson John Kirby said in a press briefing that Schumer had notified the White House about the speech ahead of time. Biden, along with Democratic pro-Israel stalwarts such as Schumer, gave Israel unequivocal support following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. But they have more recently expressed frustration with the mounting death toll in Gaza, a severe humanitarian crisis in the territory and Netanyahu’s opposition to take steps toward Palestinian statehood.

Biden has reportedly indicated openness toward conditioning aid to Israel. And as Schumer delivered his speech, the State Department announced sanctions on three Israelis for alleged violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

The three will be barred from entering the United States and be subject to financial penalties for actions that “undermine the national security and foreign policy objectives of the United States, including the viability of a two-state solution,” the State Department said. The United States has sanctioned other West Bank settlers on similar grounds in recent months.

The speech was especially notable because Schumer, the Democrat and Senate majority leader, highlighted his longstanding connection to Israel and outspoken support for it. As he frequently does, Schumer noted that his name comes from the Hebrew word “shomer,” meaning guardian.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on Thursday morning, Schumer expressed his support for Israel’s existence and excoriated Hamas as well as its supporters following its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which launched the current war. He also called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an “obstacle to peace.”

But in addition, saying he spoke for a “silent majority” of American Jews, Schumer said many were “horrified” that Israel was falling short of upholding Jewish values due to its far-right coalition members and the way it is prosecuting the war in Gaza. And he castigated Netanyahu for actively opposing a two-state solution.

“Netanyahu has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel. He has put himself in a coalition with far-right extremists,” Schumer said, singling out Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Israel has the right to self defense, Schumer said, but added, “How it exercises that right matters. Israel must prioritize the protection of civilian casualties.”

Schumer’s call for elections comes after months of polls that show that a majority of Israelis want new elections and that the vast majority disapprove of Netanyahu. But should another government opposed to Israeli-Palestinian peace form in Israel, Schumer said, the U.S. government should not unquestioningly support it.

“The U.S. government should demand that Israel conduct itself with a future two-state solution in mind. We should not be forced into a position of unequivocally supporting the actions of an Israeli government that includes bigots who reject the idea of a Palestinian state,” Schumer said. 

After Schumer concluded his speech, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, suggested that Schumer was acting inappropriately toward an ally.

“The Jewish state of Israel deserves an ally that acts like one,” he 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 democratic country.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, condemned Schumer’s speech as “counterproductive.”

“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,” Herzog said on X, formerly Twitter.

The leader of Israel’s opposition, centrist Yair Lapid, said Schumer’s speech showed that Netanyahu was losing Israel’s most prominent supporters in the United States.

“What’s even worse — he’s doing it on purpose,” Lapid said on X. “Netanyahu is causing heavy damage to the national effort to win the war.”

But other Netanyahu rivals criticized Schumer. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu ally who unseated him in 2021, condemned the speech.

“Regardless of our political opinion, we strongly oppose external political intervention in Israel’s internal affairs,” Bennett said in an English-language post on X. Similar to Netanyahu’s party, he added, “We are an independent nation, not a banana republic.”

Smotrich said in a post on X, “We expect the greatest democracy in the world to respect Israeli democracy.”

This Post Has One Comment

  1. RB

    New York needs a new senator

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