Conference of Presidents: 'Distressed' at his intervention

Schumer defends call for Israel to replace Netanyahu in meet with US Jewish leaders

Top Democrat also gives interview to NYT in which he reveals that he mulled calling on PM to resign in lightning rod speech but decided against it, not wanting to lecture Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, prepares to speak at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Illustrative: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, prepares to speak at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at Washington Convention Center, in Washington, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer convened a meeting Tuesday with executives from major American Jewish organizations to defend the lightning rod speech he gave last week calling for early elections in Israel to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There was a fundamental question of whether he would backpedal or defend himself, and he very clearly defended himself,” said one the executive on the call Schumer held with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The conference issued a statement after the meeting, expressing its “distress” at his attempted intervention in Israel’s electoral process and in shaping Israeli policy.

In addition to sparking fury from Netanyahu and Republicans who accused Schumer of interfering in Israel’s domestic politics, the Senate floor speech from the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress in US history has angered some of the organizations represented on the call as well.

The virtual meeting was an apparent attempt at damage control, as Schumer, a well-known pro-Israel stalwart,  used the opportunity to take questions from concerned Jewish community leaders and try and re-set the narrative about his speech.

He did not walk back any of his remarks — particularly those about Netanyahu — and he told The New York Times in an interview that was published around the same time as the virtual meeting that he had considered calling on the Israeli premier to step down in his speech before ultimately deciding against it so as not to be seen as lecturing Israel.

“I wrestled with myself — maybe I should say Bibi should step down,” Schumer told NYT, explaining why he decided against the move: “That is telling Israel what to do, and it’s in the middle of a war.”

Schumer clarified that while he didn’t want to overstep, he felt that focusing on policy disagreements instead of calling out Netanyahu, who he termed “the fount of the problems,” would be insufficient.

“I said to myself, ‘This may hurt me politically; this may help me politically.’ I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I didn’t do it,” Schumer recalled in the interview.

He said the main purpose of the speech “was to say you can still love Israel and feel strongly about Israel and totally disagree with Bibi Netanyahu and the policies of Israel.”

“Bibi could prevent any election until 2026,” he said.

“I worry under his leadership, Israel would become such a pariah in the world and even in the United States because I look at the numbers and they’re rapidly decreasing. I had to speak out before it erodes,” Schumer continued, adding that Israel’s “future could well be over” without US support.

Schumer revealed that he spent two months and ten drafts preparing for the speech and updated the White House a day in advance to ensure that it would not interfere with negotiations to free the hostages in Gaza.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Feb. 23, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/Israel Government Press Office)

During the virtual meeting with the Conference of Presidents, Schumer stressed that most of his 45-minute speech focused on criticizing Hamas and lamented that the reporting has focused almost solely on his call for early elections, the executive said.

Still, the Senate majority leader reaffirmed his belief that Netanyahu is a danger to Israel, particularly for empowering far-right leaders like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the executive at the virtual meeting recalled.

Schumer clarified that he wasn’t telling Israelis who to vote for and that he was only pushing for elections when the war in Gaza begins winding down.

He repeatedly highlighted what he views as his “hawkish” pro-Israel bonafides, recalling how he was one of four Democrats in the Senate to vote against the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by then-US president Barack Obama in 2015, the executive says.

Schumer recognized that some in the Jewish community didn’t like his speech, but he maintained that he had an obligation to deliver it, given his position. He recognized that domestic politics were a factor, but insisted that wasn’t the driving influence behind his speech.

In the speech, Schumer said Netanyahu had “lost his way,” branding him an obstacle to peace along with Hamas, the Israeli far-right and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Benny Gantz, left, a key member of Israel’s War Cabinet is welcomed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for a private meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Multiple people asked Schumer why he listed Hamas and Netanyahu as two of four obstacles to peace laid out in his speech, saying the comparison between a theocratic terrorist dictatorship and the leader of a democracy was uncalled for.

“There is no way I suggested Netanyahu is in the same category as Hamas,” Schumer shot back, according to a participant’s notes. “The speech makes clear that Hamas is the primary problem.”

The Conference of Presidents issued a statement afterward indicating that it wasn’t convinced.

“​​We find it most unfortunate that Senator Schumer’s stated barriers to peace included the Hamas Terror Army and the democratically elected prime minister of Israel in the same breath. Hamas’ unwillingness to release the hostages, lay down its arms, and surrender are the actual barriers to peace,” it said.

The left-leaning Americans for Peace Now pushed back on the umbrella body’s position. “As members of the Conference of Presidents, we disagree. Senator Schumer spoke out of his honest love and concern for Israel and its future, even when doing so was difficult. More Jewish leaders should do so,” APN said in a statement.

Another key concern on the call was Schumer’s warning that the United States may use “leverage” to change Israel’s course.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a news conference with family members of people held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and a bipartisan group of Senators from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the U.S. Capitol on January 17, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

“Our member organizations, representing the broad swath of American Jewry, remain distressed that an American official would tell a sovereign, democratic ally when to conduct its electoral process and assert that the US should possibly ‘play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change present course,’” said the Conference of Presidents statement. “In actuality, what is really needed is US leverage to bolster and support the Jewish state in this time of need.”

The statement quoted Schumer’s speech, in which he said, “If Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current coalition remains in power after the war begins to wind down, and continues to pursue dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing US standards for assistance, then the United States will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

Schumer emphatically told the callers he did not want to place conditions on defense assistance to Israel, as some Democrats have demanded. He did not explain what “leverage” would otherwise mean, except to note that President Joe Biden has an open line to Netanyahu’s government.

The virtual exchange captured the establishment Jewish community’s stunned reaction to anguished criticism of Israel from one of its longest-standing stalwarts. Schumer’s speech made tangible the growing alienation between Israel and the Democrats, which serves as the political home for most American Jews.

Days after the speech, former US president and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion. They hate everything about Israel and they should be ashamed of themselves.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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