Analysis'Bibi’s base gets energized when the Americans attack'

Schumer’s speech wins some plaudits, but not all Netanyahu critics are on board

Head of Democratic group says Senate chief was speaking more to US Jews and progressives than Israelis, who professor notes broadly support war effort and oppose two-state solution

Luke Tress

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, poses for a picture with then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, poses for a picture with US Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

JTA — When Senator Chuck Schumer called for new elections in Israel, all but telling Israelis that it was time to replace Benjamin Netanyahu, it was a rare instance of an American leader weighing in on how (and when) an ally should vote.

The call was all the more notable coming from Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in history and a man who is known for referencing the Hebrew root of his name — “shomer,” meaning guardian — to illustrate his commitment to Israel.

Schumer stressed that devotion in his speech as he castigated Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, as a man who is an “obstacle to peace” and who has “lost his way.” But while some Democratic and liberal groups applauded his speech, centrist groups — and even some of Netanyahu’s rivals — criticized it as inappropriate meddling in Israel’s internal affairs, and wondered aloud what he hoped to achieve.

Does Schumer feel his voice and bona fides are strong enough that Israeli officials will heed his call, especially given Netanyahu’s dismal poll numbers? Was his criticism of Netanyahu, as he said in the speech, mainly a reflection of how the “silent majority” of American Jews feel? Or was it a political maneuver to retain support among progressive Democrats who oppose Israel’s war and the Biden administration’s backing of it?

And could his broadside against Netanyahu in fact help the prime minister shore up his support — portraying himself as the only leader able to withstand American pressure?

In the speech on Thursday on the Senate floor, Schumer called for a two-state solution and defended Israel’s right to exist and fight against Hamas. Alongside Netanyahu, he condemned Hamas, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and far-right Israeli government ministers as “obstacles to peace.”

“Israel is a democracy,” Schumer said in the speech. “Five months into this conflict it is clear that Israelis need to take stock of the situation and ask, must we change course. At this critical juncture I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.”

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks on the Senate floor on March 14, 2024. (Video screen capture)

Schumer’s call for early elections in Israel — the current right-wing government took office at the end of 2022 — does reflect polling. The Israeli Democracy Institute said in a January poll that most Israelis — 71% — support accelerating elections. A series of polls since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7 have shown that Netanyahu would likely be unseated.

But Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University who has written extensively about Israel and Zionism, said Schumer misunderstood the Israeli call for early elections and “failed to read the Israeli room,” which broadly supports the war effort and opposes Schumer’s call for a two-state solution.

“Most Israelis, even those of us who like me have been calling for Netanyahu’s resignation for years, want a focused effective war effort and know that the two-state solution is not realistic at this moment,” Troy told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Prof. Gil Troy, author of ‘Zionist Ideas.’ (courtesy)

He added that Schumer’s criticism actually plays into Netanyahu’s hands. “Those of us fed up with Netanyahu are furious at Schumer because Bibi’s base gets energized when the Americans — and the Israeli left — attack, especially in such a sloppy, uninformed, heavy-handed way,” Troy told JTA.

A range of organizations and figures — from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC to the American Jewish Committee to [war cabinet minister] Benny Gantz, the Israeli official who is the likeliest candidate to unseat Netanyahu — said it was inappropriate for Schumer to call on an ally to hold elections and replace its leader. But Halie Soifer, who heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America, says Schumer’s speech wasn’t about Israelis as much as it was about speaking for American Jews.

Halie Soifer heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America. (Courtesy of JDCA)

She also suggested that Schumer was speaking to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which has protested President Joe Biden’s support for Israel as he runs for reelection.

“I thought it was a powerful statement that reflected the way that the overwhelming majority of American Jews view both their deep commitment to Israeli security but also the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Soifer said. “It was not easy, [but] he clearly spoke from the heart and he addressed tough issues.”

She added, “It doesn’t strike me as Senator Schumer’s intention to influence domestic politics. He was identifying the challenges facing US supporters of Israel in this moment. … There’s no way to talk about the challenges that Israel faces without speaking about the political challenges.”

Illustrative: Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government, in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In that vein, Phylisa Wisdom, the executive director of the liberal New York Jewish Agenda advocacy group, said she appreciated Schumer’s call for a two-state solution (something Biden has also repeatedly called for). She said Schumer, who represents New York, articulated “the set of nuanced views that most Jewish New Yorkers hold.”

She added, “This was a brave and historic address, and hopefully it continues to pave the way for the most urgent needs: the release of hostages, aid to Gaza, and a negotiated ceasefire all sides can agree to.”

But Times of Israel senior analyst Haviv Rettig Gur wrote, following the speech, that for those who seek change in Israel, Schumer’s speech hurt rather than helped.

“If you make him the hero standing up to American pressure on Israel/waffling on Hamas, you give him his one chance for political survival,” Gur posted on X. “The sooner Hamas is defeated, the sooner the election comes and the sooner Netanyahu almost certainly falls. … If Democrats don’t understand that, he’ll run circles around them.”

Some defenders of the speech felt that commentators were overstating Schumer’s aims. Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, a Netanyahu critic, said Schumer’s call for elections was “calling for Israelis to decide.”

“What’s disrespectful about that?” Indyk tweeted. “Especially when most Israelis agree with Schumer that there should be new elections.”

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