Likud: Israel is a proud democracy, not a banana republic

Senate leader Schumer urges Israeli election, says Netanyahu ‘has lost his way’

Israeli, Republican officials blast majority leader as he charges PM placing political survival above good of country, constitutes an obstacle to peace, turning Israel into a pariah

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

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

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday called on Israel to hold new elections, saying he believed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “lost his way” and was an obstacle to peace in the region.

His comments, which sparked anger and swift condemnation by various figures in Jerusalem, came as gaps between the US and Israel continue to grow over the latter’s prosecution of its war in Gaza against Hamas.

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7. The world has changed – radically – since then, and the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past,” said Schumer in a Thursday speech on the Senate floor.

He said Netanyahu has “lost his way, putting himself in coalition with far-right extremists like [Finance Minister] Bezalel Smotrich and [National Security Minister] Itamar Ben Gvir.”

The Israeli leader “has all too frequently bowed to the demands of extremists” and has let “his political survival take precedence over the best interests of Israel.”

Schumer asserted that “as a result, he has been too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows.”

“Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah,” Schumer 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,” the senate majority leader said.

Schumer, the highest-ranking elected Jewish official in US history, is a longtime pro-Israel stalwart in the Democratic Party, though he has become more critical of Jerusalem’s policies as the country has moved rightward and as he has risen to the leadership of a party that has moved to the left.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat-New York, speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, February 13, 2024. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Prior to his scathing comments on Netanyahu’s leadership, Schumer spent a significant part of his speech stressing his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself and bristling at international criticism of Jerusalem’s war effort, which he asserted too often ignored Hamas’s crimes and its use of Gaza civilians as human shields.

And yet, he framed Netanyahu as one of four major obstacles to peace, alongside Hamas, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and radical right-wing Israelis.

Until they are all removed from the equation, Schumer said, “there will never be peace in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank.”

“As a democracy, Israel has the right to choose its own leaders, and we should let the chips fall where they may. But the important thing is that Israelis are given a choice. There needs to be a fresh debate about the future of Israel after October 7,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an address by video to an AIPAC conference, March 12, 2024. (GPO screenshot)

“In my opinion, that is best accomplished by holding an election,” he added.

Schumer also said that if Israel tightens its control over Gaza and the West Bank and creates a “de facto single state,” then there could be no reasonable expectation that Hamas and their allies lay down arms, and it could mean constant war.

“Nobody expects Prime Minister Netanyahu to do the things that must be done to break the cycle of violence, to preserve his credibility on the world stage, to work to a two-state solution,” he continued.

In response to the speech, Netanyahu’s Likud party laid into the senator, saying “Israel is an independent and proud democracy that elected Prime Minister Netanyahu, not a banana republic.”

“Prime Minister Netanyahu leads a determined policy that is supported by a huge majority of the people,” it added. “Contrary to Schumer’s words, the Israeli public supports a complete victory over Hamas, rejects any international dictates to establish a Palestinian terrorist state, and opposes the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.

“It is expected of Senator Schumer to respect Israel’s elected government and not undermine it. This is always true, but even more so during wartime.”

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz, one of Netanyahu’s main political rivals who holds a significant lead over the prime minister in polls, wrote on X that Schumer’s remarks were inappropriate.

“The United States and Israel share common values and interests, and the citizens of Israel profoundly cherish the clear stance of the United States in support of Israel throughout these trying times,” Gantz wrote. “The Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is a friend of Israel, and though he erred in his remarks, plays an important role in assisting the State of Israel, including during these difficult times.”

“Israel is a robust democracy, and only its citizens will decide its future and leadership. Any external interference on the matter is counter-productive and unacceptable”

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog criticized Schumer too, saying that “Israel is a sovereign democracy. It is unhelpful — all the more so as Israel is at war against the genocidal terror organization Hamas — to comment on the domestic political scene of a democratic ally. It is counterproductive to our common goals.”

Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog speaks during Israel’s Independence Day reception, hosted by the Israeli embassy to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, June 6, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor immediately after Schumer’s remarks that “Israel deserves an ally that acts like one” and that foreign observers “ought to refrain from weighing in.”

The Democratic Party has an anti-Israel problem, McConnell said. “Either we respect their decisions or we disrespect their democracy,” he said.

And at a House GOP retreat in West Virginia, House Speaker Mike Johnson called Schumer’s speech “inappropriate.”

“It’s just plain wrong for an American leader to play such a divisive role in Israeli politics while our closest ally in the region is in an existential battle for its very survival,” the Republican speaker said.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson of Louisiana listens as US President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with Congressional leaders in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, February 27, 2024. (Evan Vucci/AP)

At the White House, national security spokesman John Kirby declined to weigh in on Schumer’s call for new elections, saying the White House is most focused on getting a temporary cease-fire in place.

“We know Leader Schumer feels strongly about this and we’ll certainly let him speak to it and to his comments,” Kirby said. “We’re going to stay focused on making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself while doing everything that they can to avoid civilian casualties.”

Former US ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman also commented on Schumer’s statement, saying he was disgusted that “the Senate Majority Leader publicly pushes for regime change in the middle of a war.”

Israel’s Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said Schumer’s call for elections in Israel was “proof that one by one [the premier] is losing Israel’s biggest supporters in the US.”

“What’s worse – he’s doing it on purpose,” Lapid alleged. “Netanyahu is causing significant damage to the national effort to win the war and maintain Israel’s security.”

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

Of the aging Mahmoud Abbas, Schumer said that “for there to be any hope of peace in the future, Abbas must step down and be replaced by a new generation of Palestinian leaders who will work towards attaining peace with a Jewish state.”

War erupted in Israel on October 7 when Hamas led a devastating attack on Israel in which 1,200 people were murdered, most of them civilians. The terrorists also abducted 253 people of all ages who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

Israel responded with a military offensive to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, destroy the terror group and free the hostages, over half of whom remain in captivity.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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