Republicans seethe over Schumer call for Israeli elections

Republicans say Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) made a serious political misstep with his call for new elections in Israel to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

They wasted no time going after Schumer’s address, with a number of visibly frustrated GOP senators arguing the 45-minute speech was a major miscalculation.

“So now he’s meddling in the Knesset elections in Israel?” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told The Hill about Schumer’s call, using the name of the Israeli Parliament. “I think the voters in that country should decide that. There’s a war Cabinet that has people that are political arch rivals. I don’t hear them calling for an election, so how the hell can somebody in the United States call for elections?”

“It’s a misstep because we’re meddling, and he’s trying to have it both ways,” Tillis continued, arguing politics was at the core of Schumer’s address. “There is no good foreign policy or other reasons to make that kind of statement.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) questions Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing for the Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress on March 7, 2024. (Greg Nash)

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, had largely stayed silent on the topic of Israel in recent weeks as Senate Democrats and progressives increasingly became infuriated with the escalating situation in Gaza.

That changed Thursday as he issued his most blistering criticism yet of Netanyahu, saying the Israeli leader had “lost his way” after a number of political and legal battles. He also argued that the prime minister is in a coalition with “far-right extremists” and has been “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows.”

“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 added, referring to Hamas’s attack. “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.”

His remarks lit a fuse with a number of top Senate Republicans.

Almost immediately after Schumer concluded, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) panned his call for new elections and fresh critique of Netanyahu.

“It is grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of a democratically elected leader of Israel,” McConnell said, calling Schumer’s remarks “unprecedented.”

“We should not treat fellow democracies this way at all,” he continued. “Only Israel’s citizens should have a say in who runs their government. This is the very definition of democracy and sovereignty. Either we respect their decisions or we disrespect their democracy.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is seen leaving the Capitol after voting Thursday. (Allison Robbert)

Netanyahu was slated to address the Senate GOP during its annual retreat Wednesday via video, but he had to cancel at the last minute.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and House Republican leaders, meanwhile, quickly called a press conference at the annual GOP retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., to slam the Democratic leader’s call as “inappropriate” and “wrong.”

“We need to be standing with Israel. We need to give our friends and allies our full support,” Johnson said.

Top political leaders in Israel also argued that Schumer erred Thursday.

Benny Gantz, a leading rival of Netanyahu who serves in his wartime Cabinet, labeled Schumer’s call a “mistake.” Gantz is a leading contender to replace Netanyahu and met with Schumer in Washington only last week.

Other Senate Republicans ratcheted up their criticism even further. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) called Schumer’s push for a new election “disgusting.”

“Whether you like [Netanyahu] or not, he’s been an effective leader. He’s in the middle of a war and you’re trying to get him ousted,” Scott said. “How are you helping Israel and the people of Israel?”

Schumer responded to the backlash with a post on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

“The U.S. cannot dictate the outcome of an election. That is for the Israeli public to decide,” he wrote. “As a democracy, Israel has the right to choose its own leaders. But the important thing is that Israelis are given a choice. There needs to be a fresh debate about the future.”

The situation in Gaza has created a headache for Schumer, forcing him to straddle the fence between backing Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 and the dissatisfaction within his Democratic conference with Netanyahu’s handling of the war.

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About 1,200 people were killed and 250 abducted when Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count, has said that more than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began Oct. 7. The United Nations also says approximately a quarter of Gaza’s population is now starving.

Senate Democrats said they were pleased with Schumer’s remarks while noting he has been dealt a difficult hand on the topic.

“I thought his speech did meet this moment,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said. “You could clearly recognize this was an emotional speech, that this was a difficult speech, but that he felt it was a necessary speech. … It was a moment where obviously Sen. Schumer felt enough was enough.”

That dissatisfaction within the conference has also been rising lately. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and seven Senate Democrats penned a letter earlier this week calling on President Biden to halt giving weapons to Israel for the war until Israel nixes restrictions on U.S.-backed humanitarian aid going into Gaza.

Sanders and others have also called for future aid to Israel to be conditioned on whether the country is violating human rights and international accords.

“He’s right,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said about Schumer’s call for new elections. “The Netanyahu government has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that is bleeding support for Israel all around the world.”

Schumer also cited four key obstacles to the goal of establishing a two-state solution: Hamas and Palestinians who “support and tolerate” their efforts; radical right-wing Israelis; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; and Netanyahu.

But it was his call for new elections that have reverberated and angered the GOP intensely. Tillis at one point wondered what it would have been like if the Knesset had called for new elections in the U.S. months after the 9/11 attack.

“How would we have reacted to that?” Tillis said. “Come on, Chuck.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.

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