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Schumer on Netanyahu in Context

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March 14, 2024 11:29 a.m.
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) gives a thumbs-up after speaking on the National Security Supplemental Bill at the U.S. Capitol on February 13, 2024 in Washington, DC.... WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) gives a thumbs-up after speaking on the National Security Supplemental Bill at the U.S. Capitol on February 13, 2024 in Washington, DC. The bill, which received contentious debate and months of negotiations in the Senate, provides military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan but is expected to be received with uncertainty in the House of Representatives. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images) MORE LESS

There was really quite a stunning development in the Senate this afternoon. Schumer went to the floor to call for new elections in Israel, calling Netanyahu “an obstacle to peace” and going on to say he is pursuing “dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing standards for assistance.” If Netanyahu remains in power after the war, the U.S. should “play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

These words require some context and deconstruction.

First, it is not surprising that Schumer thinks this. It would be very surprising if he didn’t. The fact that he is saying it on the Senate floor is truly stunning and something that in most cases would be all but unimaginable. The first and most obvious reason is that U.S. leaders virtually never publicly call for new elections — and implicitly for a new government — in the governments of close allies. And for good reason.

Republicans will no doubt be harping on just this point, as Senator McConnell did almost immediately after Schumer ended his speech.

The context is somewhat altered by the fact that for months it’s been crystal clear that Netanyahu’s government had undergone a catastrophic loss of confidence after Oct. 7th. Basically since Oct. 8th polls have shown the Israeli public wants him gone and wants the new election that is the only way to get rid of him. So Schumer knows there are open ears in Israel for such a call.

That doesn’t mean Israelis want him gone for just the same reasons Americans do. But they want him gone.

It’s still really unheard of and, in all but this context, all but unimaginable. That said, those managing the shift on the U.S. side certainly won’t forget Netanyahu’s undisguised and brazen alliance with the GOP, meddling in the politics of what is, after all, the Great Power in the relationship. (Revenge is a dish best served cold.)

The other really critical part of this is that Schumer is clearly running interference for Joe Biden and the policy shift he is trying to achieve. It is one clearly informed by the domestic situation in the United States. But it would be a basic error to reduce it to only that. To do so would be to ignore almost 15 years of relations between the Obama and Biden administrations — in and out of government. (Some are doing that out of ignorance, others for political purposes.) The White House has been signaling this pivot for weeks. Biden is a strong supporter of Israel going back literally half a century, though not of Netanyahu. He has also gone to great lengths, to his obvious political peril, to back Israel in recent months. But he’s still not Chuck Schumer. Schumer is Jewish and as the senior senator from New York comes from the cradle of American Jewry, New York City. Even today, with Jews decamped throughout the United States, New York City has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But it’s not just surnames and Yiddishisms. Schumer is deep, deep, deep into pro-Israel politics. And not just in the sense of many of us who consider ourselves very pro-Israel but also deeply critical of most of its governments back to the 1990s and all of Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing. Schumer was one of only four Senate Democrats to side with Netanyahu’s then-government in opposing the Iran nuclear agreement under Barack Obama.

His bona-fides on this front are simply ironclad.

Schumer is unquestionably taking this step in coordination with the White House. He is putting himself forward as a heat shield for Joe Biden. But it also clearly took an almost adamantine level of frustration and anger at Netanyahu to bring Schumer to this point. I have no doubt Schumer believes every word he is saying.

It’s a step that is an important one for U.S.-Israel relations generally and also for American supporters of Israel generally.

I’ll have more thoughts on this after reviewing the entire text and giving it more thought.

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