FM calls Schumer speech ‘unacceptable,’ tries to downplay rift with US over Rafah plans

Katz says PM will serve as long as he has Knesset majority, suggests Arab countries set up tents for Rafah evacuees; former US envoy Nides defends Schumer as ‘true Zionist’

Foreign Minister Israel Katz during a plenum session at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 6, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Israel Katz during a plenum session at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, March 6, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Monday that US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was a “friend of Israel” but called his speech urging Israel to hold elections “unacceptable,” while stating that Washington approved of Israel’s plans to invade Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah.

Schumer’s remarks, in which he said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “lost his way,” underlined a growing rift between Israel and its closest ally. The comments were denounced by the premier, coalition ministers, and US Republicans but praised by US President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers.

“We are a democratic country. As long as the prime minister has a majority of 61 and over… then that is the government of the State of Israel,” Katz told Kan public radio, adding that ties with the US were not at risk.

Former US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides defended both Schumer and his remarks in an interview with Army Radio Monday, calling the Senate majority leader the best friend Israel has and a “true Zionist.”

“The senator has the right to say what he believes, and Israelis will decide how and when they want elections,” he said.

In his speech on Thursday, Schumer spoke about feeling an obligation as an American Jew to speak out about Israel’s role in achieving peace with the Palestinians.

File: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, March 12, 2024. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Schumer listed Netanyahu as one of the four obstacles to peace along with Hamas, the Israeli far right and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saying the prime minister had “lost his way” politically and that he and his government did not fit the needs of Israel’s post-October 7 reality.

Therefore, he said, he believed Israel needed to have elections, implying he recommended the replacement of Netanyahu and those he dubbed extremists in his government, such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Speaking to Kan, Katz said that Israel and the US are on the same page regarding an impending Israeli invasion of Rafah and moving civilians out of harm’s way.

“It’s clear we will act in Rafah. Ahead of the massive operation, we will evacuate the civilians from there. Not north, but to an area to the west,” he said, seemingly referring to the al-Mawasi area — where an Israeli settlement bloc once stood — which Israel has repeatedly suggested as an appropriate civilian safe zone.

There have been ample signs of displeasure coming from the Biden administration over the ongoing campaign. US officials told Politico last week that the president would consider placing conditions on future military aid to Israel if it moves ahead with its planned offensive against Rafah, although US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday appeared to deny that the president was considering the measure.

Biden has also said an IDF entry into Rafah would be a “red line” for his administration, and repeatedly expressed frustration over the civilian death toll in Gaza and the slow distribution of financial aid.

Kan reported that US officials estimate that moving civilians out of Rafah before an operation will take weeks at least, with such an operation requiring the area to be “flooded” with food, and living quarters or temporary shelters to be constructed there.

“There are Arab countries that can help with putting up tents, or other things, in the framework of humanitarian action,” Katz said Monday.

People walk past the rubble of Al-Faruq Mosque, that was destroyed during Israeli bombardment, in Rafah on the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Israel has said Rafah, where four Hamas battalions are deployed, is Hamas’s last remaining major stronghold in the Strip after the IDF operated in the north and center of the Palestinian enclave. It has said an offensive there is necessary to achieve the war’s goals and is not a question of “if” but of “when.”

Netanyahu’s office said on Friday he had approved military operational plans for an offensive in the southern Gaza city.

The war began on October 7 when some 3,000 terrorists stormed the border with Israel and unleashed an unprecedented attack on southern communities, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking 253 as hostages to Gaza, where more than half remain.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 31,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified, and includes those killed by the terror groups’ failed rocket launches and some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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