Schumer levels heavy criticism at Israel on U.S. Senate floor, calls for elections there

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, on Thursday, March 14, 2024, criticized Israeli leadership in a speech on the Senate floor. In this photo, Schumer speaks with reporters inside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urged an overhaul of both Israeli and Palestinian Authority leadership and said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has lost his way,” in strong and lengthy comments delivered on the U.S. Senate floor Thursday morning.

The New York Democrat — the highest-ranking Jewish member in Congress — called for Israel to hold elections and pursue “a fresh debate about the future of Israel after October 7,” the date when Hamas militants stormed Israel’s southern border, brutally attacking and killing an estimated 1,200 people.

“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,” Schumer said.

Schumer urged Israel to make “significant course corrections” five months into its retaliatory war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Israel’s near-constant bombardment.

The latest Qatar-led negotiations to broker a ceasefire and hostage deal have stalled while the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is underway, and as Netanyahu is poised for an offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, an area densely crowded with displaced Palestinians.

More than 31,000 civilians have been killed in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip since the conflict began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Schumer squarely blamed Netanyahu for worldwide support for Israel sinking to “historic lows” and directly named right-wing Israeli leaders and top Palestinians as obstacles to a two-state solution.

“Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah,” he said.

Schumer said he supports a temporary pause in fighting but stopped short of calling for a permanent ceasefire, saying doing so “would only allow Hamas to regroup and launch further attacks on Israeli civilians.”

“There can never be a two-state solution if Hamas has any significant power,” he said.

‘Grotesque and hypocritical’

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately answered Schumer on the floor and panned his speech as “unprecedented.”

“It is grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about foreign interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of the democratically elected leader of Israel,” the Kentucky Republican said.

“Israel is not a colony of America whose leaders serve at the pleasure of the party in power in Washington. Only Israel’s citizens should have a say in who runs their government. This is the very definition of democracy and sovereignty,” McConnell continued. “Either we respect their decisions, or we disrespect their democracy.”

House Republicans also quickly delivered a rebuke from their party retreat in West Virginia.

Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota said Democrats “have a problem, but it’s not with Netanyahu.”

“It is with the anti-Israel members of their own party that have taken over the woke left,” he said in a video posted on X from the Greenbrier Resort.

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. characterized Schumer’s comments as “unhelpful.”

“Israel is a sovereign democracy. 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,” Ambassador Michael Herzog said in a post on X.

As of mid-afternoon Thursday, Netanyahu had not issued a response on his press office’s web page or X account.

Democratic support

Senate Democrats largely fell in line behind Schumer’s call for new leadership in Israel.

Sen. Patty Murray, the body’s president pro tempore, said she was “grateful” for the majority leader’s speech.

“Netanyahu & his far-right coalition have made clear they oppose a two-state solution, which is the path to lasting peace. Israelis should have the opportunity to choose new leadership through an election,” the Washington Democrat wrote on X.

Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who faces a tough reelection campaign this year, told reporters on Capitol Hill “I think the sooner that Netanyahu is gone, the better.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has for months called for restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel, said Schumer made a “very important point, and that is the people of Israel have got to understand how increasingly isolated they are from the rest of the world community.”

“The Netanyahu government is denying food and humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of people who are facing starvation,” the Vermont independent said, referring to Israel’s refusal to open adequate land crossings for aid, which Israel denies. “I hope very much there will be new leadership in Israel.”

“I know there are people who say ‘Well, why is it the business of the United States to get involved in Israeli politics?’ Well, one of the reasons is we have put billions of dollars every single year for many decades in Israel. There’s now legislation, as you know, (for) $14 billion. So what happens in Israel is very much of a legitimate concern for the American people,” Sanders, another leading Jewish lawmaker, said Thursday on Capitol Hill.

U.S. aid to Israel

The $14 billion in proposed additional military assistance passed in the Senate in early February as part of a larger $95 billion foreign aid package for Ukraine and Taiwan.

The proposed aid breaks down to $10.6 billion from the Department of Defense for Israel’s war effort and $3.5 billion from the Department of State to help the nation “reestablish territorial security and deterrence.”

Brown was one of the bill’s original sponsors, along with Tim Scott of South Carolina.

House Republicans have not scheduled a vote on the bill, which would also provide $9.2 billion for humanitarian assistance in Israel and Ukraine.

Israel has been the top recipient of cumulative foreign assistance from the U.S. since its formation in 1948.

To date, the U.S. has provided $158 billion in aid and missile defense funding.

The latest 10-year bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Israel, signed in 2016, promised $38 billion in military aid.


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