Schumer Clears Path for Democrats To Disavow Netanyahu. Will Biden Follow?
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Author: Ben Samuels
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WASHINGTON – 24 hours after the earthquake following Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's Senate floor remarks calling for new Israeli elections while sharply decrying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it is becoming undeniably clear that the speech will go down as a watershed moment in the history of U.S.-Israel relations.

While Netanyahu has long found himself out of favor with much the Democratic Party's base, particularly as the Gaza humanitarian crisis has worsened, the explicit disowning of Netanyahu from the highest ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history has cleared the path for Democrats to follow suit.

Democratic senators from across the caucus spectrum have lent their support to Schumer following his remarks, noting how the New York senator offered a path forward that has been deemed impossible by pro-Israel allies and critics alike.

This includes members who have been at the forefront of calling for conditioned military assistance side-by-side with lawmakers who, like Schumer, have been warmly embraced by the pro-Israel establishment for years.

One of those lawmakers, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, said Schumer's "insightful comments on new directions for policy in the Middle East. His leadership on a path forward to lasting peace and stability is important."

Sen. Patty Murray similarly noted that "Netanyahu and 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."

On the progressive side of the party spectrum, Sen. Jeff Merkley lauded the "profoundly important call to establish two states for two peoples from Leader Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish official in U.S. history," adding that "securing peace, safety, and prosperity for both Palestinians and Israelis is the best way to break the cycle of hate and violence."

Merkley's fellow Netanyahu critic, Sen. Peter Welch, noted Schumer "told truths that have long needed to be said about Israel's political leadership. It was a powerful speech that provides a framework to peace for both Israelis and Palestinians."

"I agree. I have no confidence in Prime Minister Netanyahu's ability to end this cycle of violence," Sen. Ron Wyden said of Schumer's remarks.

Schumer's remarks immediately solidified a trend that had been underway since Netanyahu's ascendance, ebbing and flowing in intensity over the years but constantly heading in the same direction: Netanyahu is now officially persona non grata with the Democratic Party's center, for supporters of Israel and critics alike.

The move is an undeniable gamble — one that the Biden administration has been reluctant to take, and one that some pro-Israel Democrats are still afraid to join — that going whole hog on their criticisms of Netanyahu will not help him shore up domestic support.

On Friday, Biden responded to a question about Schumer's speech, saying, "I'm not going to elaborate on his speech. He made a good speech and I think he expressed serious concerns shared not only by him but by many Americans."

For Schumer and his cohort, however, the matter has reached a point of no return given Gaza's humanitarian crisis and the very real possibility that U.S. military assistance could be conditioned. The idea that Schumer would be on the Senate floor talking about leveraging U.S. assistance would have defied imagination just months ago, only illustrating just how far gone Netanyahu's standing is within the Democratic Party.

Further, the fact this speech was signed, sealed and delivered by perhaps the most important Democratic ally Israel has ever known, short of U.S. President Joe Biden — and one of four Senate Democrats to side with Netanyahu during his battle with former U.S. President Barack Obama over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — makes it all the more symbolic.

The development will empower organizations like J Street, which has found itself in a bit of an identity crisis over the past five months, to reclaim the mantle of representing the majority voice of the majority party.

J Street described the speech as a "historic shift for pro-Israel Democrats," with J Street's Director of Government Affairs Hannah Morris noting Schumer "showed clear recognition that U.S. policy needs to change" and that it was a "forceful call for President Biden to press forward with a regional peace agreement resulting in a viable Palestinian state."

The new center of the U.S. Jewish Democratic base was further illustrated by Jewish Democratic Council of America CEO Halie Soifer, who said Schumer did "did something big. He said what the overwhelming majority of American Jews are thinking as it relates to our deep commitment to Israel and concern about its future as a secure, Jewish and democratic state."

Schumer's remarks were not coordinated with Biden, though U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby confirmed that he informed the White House the night before his address that he planned on delivering the remarks.

While U.S. officials did not encourage Schumer, it notably did not instruct him to pull any punches or avoid making any specific calls.

"We know that Leader Schumer feels strongly about this. I'll certainly let him speak to it and to his comments. 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," Kirby said.

Kirby added that the Biden administration is still "laser-focused on trying to get a temporary cease-fire in place so that we can get the hostages out and get more aid in. That's where our head is right now."

He further echoed Schumer's call to let the Israeli people decide on their political fate, no matter how muddled the messaging has gotten in the aftermath of Schumer's remarks.

"That's going to be up to the Israeli people," Kirby said when asked if it is time for political change in Israel. "The issue of elections is, in the parliamentary process, up to the Israeli government, a government elected by the Israeli people."

Biden's hesitance to fully get on board with Schumer can be seen in the backlash that quickly emerged from the Israeli political landscape, the entirety of the Republican Party as well as pro-Israel and Jewish establishment organizations.

Schumer met with Benny Gantz — who notably rejected Schumer's remarks — one week before the speech, as the war cabinet minister came to Washington with the undeniable glow of the man who could course correct Israel's bipartisan standing in the U.S.

The White House is undeniably viewing the GOP reactions to Schumer — particularly accusing him of encouraging the U.S. to interfere in another country's democracy — as a cautionary tale of getting too explicitly involved.

"What he said today was earth-shatteringly bad. The majority leader of the United States Senate is calling on the people of Israel to overthrow their government," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has stood hand-in-hand with Schumer for years as pro-Israel lodestars in Congress.

U.S. officials are accordingly worried about the potential unintended consequences such actions could provide Netanyahu, providing the prime minister with free talking points to an Israeli electorate still traumatized by October 7.

One common refrain from Netanyahu since his feud with Biden has reached new heights is that Israel is not a banana republic nor is it a U.S. protectorate.

Expect him and his Likud Party to double down on this, connecting Schumer with Biden while trafficking in fearmongering that the Democratic Party's two most significant supporters of Israel in the country's history are not fully committed to Israel's security.

U.S. officials, whom have sought to lower the flames given the potential benefits to Netanyahu's political survival, are already bracing for this.

More articles by Ben Samuels 

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