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Schumer dodges political blowback on Israel

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) knew he would be taking a big political risk when he called for new elections in Israel — but weeks later has avoided serious political blowback for his landmark statement and instead given divided Democrats something to rally behind.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political allies, including Republicans in Congress, denounced Schumer’s speech, which referred to Netanyahu as an “obstacle to peace” and went further than any prominent Democrats in Congress had been willing to go.

But it was applauded by President Biden, Democratic colleagues and many Jewish Americans who have struggled with how to process the war in Gaza.

“This is what leadership is, giving the rest of the party and the country a set of thoughts and principles to move forward in a very difficult situation like this. I think that’s what he wanted to do in that speech,” said Israel “Izzy” Klein, a former Schumer aide and political committee chair of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

“I didn’t look at it and I don’t think he did either in a political way. Of course, he’s a politician so everything gets seen through that lens,” he added.

Klein said there was a “misinterpreting” by some critics that Schumer was calling for Netanyahu’s ouster, but the Senate leader was careful to spell out that was not his intention.

Schumer said he wants to make sure that the Israeli people have a chance to voice their preferences for how they are governed after the paradigm shift of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which left more than 1,100 Israeli civilians and soldiers dead.

Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, who previously worked for Schumer for eight years, said his former boss got the speech right.

“I don’t think he went too far,” he said. “I was surprised when I saw his floor speech, having worked for him for eight years.

“He is perhaps the most staunchly pro-Israel person I’ve ever met. I’m Jewish, by way of background,” he said. “I thought his speech was excellent and suitably nuanced and was also an indication of the problems that Israel is facing with public opinion in this country.”

A New York Times/Siena College national survey published in December showed former President Trump leading Biden among young voters for the first time — 49 percent to 43 percent and an overwhelming majority of voters under the age of 30 are opposed to the conflict in Gaza.

Schumer later told The New York Times he had to speak out on the future of Israel’s leadership because he feared it becoming a “pariah,” otherwise.

“Bibi could prevent any election until 2026,” he told The Times. “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.”

Republicans immediately attacked Schumer over the speech, accusing him of interfering in the domestic politics of a close ally during a time of war.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the Democratic Party “has an anti-Israel problem” and his office shot out a press released blaring: “Schumer bows to the anti-Israel radicals in the Democratic Party.”

Some media pundits also interpreted Schumer’s speech as an effort to placate liberals in his party who have voiced strong disapproval of the Biden administration’s handling of the war and what for months had been its reluctance to rein in the Israel Defense Forces tactics.

Sen. Pete Welch (D-Vt.), an outspoken critic of the Netanyahu regime who has highlighted the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, acknowledged the war is creating a rift with young and progressive voters but he didn’t view Schumer’s landmark speech on the floor as a move to assuage his party’s left flank.

“He’s accepting the burden of responsibility that goes with being Senate majority leader, he’s not just passively navigating,” Welch told The Hill. “He’s stating what we call know is true. We don’t have a partner in Netanyahu, we don’t have a partner in [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas.”

“He’s marking a path forward that requires us to be much more forceful about our policies and he’s saying it as a person who deeply cares about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. “It’s finally going to start changing the nature of the debate so it’s more on the level and more realistic.”

On the other end of the spectrum of views within the conference, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the Democratic conference, said he agreed with Schumer though he carefully worded his answers to sidestep Schumer’s own forceful language.

“He put all the pieces together,” he said. “I really hope people read his whole speech. He laid it all out.

“It was excellent,” he added. “Oct. 7 changed everything. Israelis need to speak through their political system so I think it would be very helpful to have a clear direction. Before Oct. 7, I had serious problems about this [Israeli] coalition government.”

Sam Berkman, the national director of communal relations for J Street, a group that describes itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy, said Schumer gave voice to the many people “who care about Israel” but have concerns about “the direction the Netanyahu government is taking the country.”

“He is speaking out critically,” he said, referring to Schumer, and “we should take pause to reflect on why that is.”

Trump seized on Schumer’s speech to accuse the Democratic Party of hating Israel and wildly declared: “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion.”

AIPAC, which counts more than 3 million pro-Israel Americans in its membership, signaled its disapproval with Schumer’s speech but did not attack him directly.

It posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, that “Israel is an independent democracy that decides for itself when elections are held and chooses its own leaders.”

And it warned that “America must continue to stand with our ally Israel and ensure it has the time and resources it needs to win the war.”

AIPAC did not respond to a request for further comment from The Hill.

Schumer got some blowback from the CEO and chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, who expressed distress “an American official would tell a sovereign, democratic ally when to conduct its electoral process.”

But that critical statement got pushback from the group’s own members who said it was “unduly harsh” and didn’t speak for the entire conference.

Netanyahu, during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” called Schumer’s call for elections “totally inappropriate.”

Schumer immediately punched back by condemning Trump’s statement as “utterly disgusting” and “a textbook example of the kinds of antisemitism facing Jews” because it pushed the “trope of dual loyalty.”

He also posted on X that he had not called for Netanyahu to step down — only for Israelis to have a chance to weigh in through a special election before the next scheduled election in 2026.

“The U.S. cannot dictate the outcome of an election. That is for the Israeli public to decide. As a democracy, Israel ass the right to choose its own leaders,” he wrote in a post that a Senate aide insisted was not a “clarification” or attempt at damage control.

He held a virtual meeting with an executives of major American Jewish organizations a few days after his speech to answer any criticisms and take their questions head on.

Some of the executives had expected Schumer to backpedal but he stood his ground firmly, reflecting his conviction he had made the right call.

Schumer got a shot of affirmation last week when a large coalition of Jewish leaders sent a letter to him and Biden stating their “gratitude” for their “leadership in safeguarding a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The letter was signed by Alan Solow, the former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Karen Adler, past president of the Jewish Communal Fund, as well as by rabbis from prominent congregations around the country.

“Sen. Schumer, we commend you for your unwavering support for Israel and the American Jewish community. You have spoken out on the challenges Israel confronts and how to best address them,” they wrote. “As the senator accurately stated, ‘now is the time for courageous leadership.’”

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