Schumer Urges Netanyahu Exit as Democrats’ Gaza Worries Grow

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reached his breaking point Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 159 days into the Israel-Hamas war.

Most Read from Bloomberg

Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the US, called for new Israeli elections and replacement of Netanyahu, an extraordinary public rebuke that reflects a wrenching reexamination of close bonds with Israel that the Gaza conflict has provoked among Democrats.

“I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. Netanyahu, he said, “has lost his way” and become beholden to right-wing extremists.

Schumer has been a key ally of Israel in Congress for decades. But the Gaza conflict’s toll on Palestinian civilians has opened a schism in the Democratic coalition with ramifications for the November US elections. A backlash against President Joe Biden’s support of the war threatens to cost Democrats votes in key battleground states like Michigan.

Schumer previously urged Israel many times to do more to avoid civilian casualties and allow aid to flow more freely to hungry Gaza residents.

Though Schumer said it’s up to Israelis to choose their leaders, he said the Netanyahu coalition “no longer fits the needs of Israel” and said the Israeli leader had made “a grave mistake” by rejecting an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.

“The bitter reality is that a single state controlled by Israel, which they advocate, guarantees certain war forever,” Schumer said.

Schumer’s comments Thursday moved him closer to progressives like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who have been sharply critical of Israel’s handling of the war.

The speech also marks the culmination of more than a decade of Democratic frustration with Netanyahu. Party members and voters were angered by the Israeli leader’s sparring with former President Barack Obama.

Republicans accused Schumer of inappropriate interference with a key US ally.

“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,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said at a Republican retreat in West Virginia.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said it’s “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.”

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Schumer had given the White House notice ahead of his remarks but stopped short of endorsing them.

“We’re going to stay focused on making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself while doing everything that they can to avoid civilian casualties, and of course, we’re still laser-focused on trying to get a temporary cease-fire in place,” Kirby said.

Schumer’s comments satisfied progressive Democrats, but they also triggered condemnation across the Israeli political spectrum, even among Netanyahu’s rivals, as inappropriate. So while his statements could help temper one of Biden’s domestic political weaknesses, they could also make the embattled Israeli prime minister even further entrenched.

Israeli Reaction

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, said in a social media post that Schumer’s criticism was “unhelpful” and “counterproductive to our common goals.” He later met with House Republicans at their retreat in West Virginia.

Netanyahu’s Likud party also criticized the speech, as did Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet but who’s also the leader of an opposition party and a long-time rival of the prime minister. Gantz’s popularity has surged above Netanyahu’s since the war started.

Schumer “is a friend of Israel” but he “erred in his remarks,” Gantz said. “Israel is a robust democracy, and only its citizens will decide its future and leadership. Any external interference on the matter is counter-productive and unacceptable.”

One Democrat, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, said he also disagreed with Schumer’s call for elections, telling reporters he wouldn’t appreciate Israel intervening in US elections.

Fetterman, who is among the most hawkish Democrats on the war, said he supports a two-state solution but that can’t happen with Hamas, whom he blames for the suffering of the Palestinians. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

“They could end the death and the chaos by surrendering and sending all of the hostages home,” he said.

Schumer also declared that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must step down and the Palestinian people must reject Hamas.

--With assistance from Billy House, Erik Wasson and Jordan Fabian.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.