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Schumer’s breakup with Netanyahu signals a big change on Israel among Democrats

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Few Democrats have vocally supported Israel — and, consequently, its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — as much as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. As Netanyahu thumbed his nose at Barack Obama throughout Obama’s presidency, even coming to Washington to try and scuttle the Iran nuclear agreement, Schumer steadfastly supported Israel’s longest-serving leader.

Schumer frequently invokes his Jewish faith and heritage, specifically talking about his late father Abe telling him, “If you are doing the right thing and you persist, God will reward you and will succeed.” But on Thursday, Schumer made clear that he will not reward Bibi.

In a floor speech, Schumer noted his surname comes from the term shomer, meaning “guardian” in Hebrew, and added that his “nuanced views on the matter have never been well-represented in this country’s discussions about the war in Gaza.” He spoke candidly about his youth in Brooklyn, and added that after “five months of suffering on both sides of this conflict, our thinking must turn — urgently — to how we can achieve lasting peace.”

Schumer called for “course corrections” and named three major obstacles he sees to peace. Unsurprisingly, he blamed Hamas, which launched the surprise assault on Israel in October last year, but added: “Palestinian civilians do not deserve to suffer for the sins of Hamas, and Israel has a moral obligation to do better.”

He then turned his attention to Netanyahu’s government, which the right-wing prime minister has filled with extremists and nationalists — such as Ministry of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has called for the” subjugation and forced displacement of Palestinians,” as Schumer described. Schumer also criticised the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which has long lacked a democratic mandate.

To be clear, Schumer did not call for a permanent ceasefire like Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. Nor did he call for conditioning aid to Israel, like his fellow alumnus of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, Senator Bernie Sanders, who is also Jewish. At the same time, he did call for new elections in Israel, saying, “It has become clear to me the Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7.”

Schumer’s remarks matter on multiple fronts. As the senator from New York, he represents the state with the largest Jewish population. Despite being Senate Majority Leader, Schumer is not a creature of Washington. He frequently travels all over the state and would not make such remarks without knowing many Jewish New Yorkers and many other Jewish Americans who simultaneously fear the rise of antisemitism and feel that the Israeli government’s actions have caused an unacceptable loss of civilian life.

Schumer’s words allow for Democrats in his caucus to feel safer in criticizing Netanyahu’s government. Like Schumer, Senator Ben Cardin, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is Jewish and he praised Schumer’s speech.

“I think October 7 changed things in Israel, and the Israelis need to speak as to their leadership,” Cardin, who is retiring at the end of the year, told reporters. Like many Jewish Americans, Cardin also had deep reservations about the Israeli government’s rightward lurch long before October. That move to the far right led to massive protests in Israel, which Durbin pointed out.

“All the demonstrations that led up to this October 7 event indicated there was going to be a change in Israel,” he said.

Senator Peter Welch, who along with Durbin supports a ceasefire, praised Schumer’s speech as “extraordinarily constructive and statesman-like and I am so thrilled to have him stepping up and saying what needs to be said.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, who once lived on a kibbutz in Israel, told The Independent that “I think the people of Israel have got to understand that they are increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, an outspoken critic of the Netanyahi government, also praised Schumer’s speech. “The Netanyahu government has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that is bleeding support for Israel, all around the world,” she said.

Senator Ron Wyden, who is Jewish and whose parents escaped the Nazis before the Holocaust, said he and Schumer, who entered Congress together, share a similar perspective. “We've talked about these issues an awful lot, and I heard some of the conversations we had in the remarks and I thought it was a real path forward,” he said.

Of course, Schumer’s remarks did not come without consternation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Schumer’s speech almost immediately and Speaker Mike Johnson did the same at the House GOP retreat. Similarly, the American Jewish Committee said while it appreciated Schumer’s defence of Israel, “we do not believe it is appropriate for US officials to try to dictate the electoral future of any ally.”

John Fetterman, the most Democratic outspoken supporter of Israel in the Senate who has faced relentless criticism from progressives, told The Independent: “I would hope that every one of those leaders would agree that you have to go after Hamas, even if that means going against sometimes even the United States’ wishes.”

But Schumer’s willingness to speak as both a prominent Jewish American and the top Democrat in the Senate shows that many Jewish Americans do not see Netanyahu’s course of action as acceptable. And it will likely provide cover for other Democrats who want to break with the Israeli government.