Home » Senate leader Schumer says Netanyahu has ‘lost his way’

Senate leader Schumer says Netanyahu has ‘lost his way’

by Marko Florentino
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Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Thursday called for Israel to hold new elections, saying he believes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has “lost his way” and is an obstacle to peace in the region amid a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Schumer, the first Jewish majority leader in the Senate and the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S., strongly criticized Netanyahu in a 40-minute speech Thursday morning on the Senate floor. Schumer said the prime minister has put himself in a coalition of far-right extremists and “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 (D-N.Y.) said.

The high-level warning comes as an increasing number of Democrats have sharply criticized Israel and as President Biden has stepped up public pressure on Netanyahu’s government, warning that he needs to pay more attention to the civilian death toll in Gaza amid the Israeli bombardment. More than 31,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the latest war, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The U.S. this month began airdrops of badly needed humanitarian aid and announced it will establish a temporary pier to get more assistance into the Gaza Strip by sea.

Schumer has positioned himself as a strong ally of the Israeli government, visiting the country just days after the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas-led militants and giving a lengthy speech on the Senate floor in December decrying “brazen and widespread antisemitism the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations in this country, if ever.”

But he said on the Senate floor Thursday that the “Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past.”

Schumer says Netanyahu, who has long opposed Palestinian statehood, is one of several obstacles in the way of the two-state solution pushed by the United States. Netanyahu “has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel,” Schumer said.

The majority leader is also blaming right-wing Israelis, Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Until they are all removed from the equation, Schumer said, “there will never be peace in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank.”

The United States cannot dictate the outcome of an election in Israel, Schumer acknowledged, but “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.”

At the White House, national security spokesman John F. 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.”

The speech drew a swift rebuke from Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the 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, 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,” Johnson (R-La.) said.

Netanyahu has long had a more cozy relationship with Republicans in the United States, most notably speaking at a joint session of Congress in 2015 at the invitation of GOP lawmakers to try to torpedo then-President Obama’s nuclear negotiations with Iran. The move infuriated Obama administration officials, who saw it as an end run around Obama’s presidential authority and unacceptably deep interference in U.S. politics and foreign policy.

Just this week, Netanyahu was invited to speak to GOP senators at a party retreat. But Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog took his place due to last-minute scheduling issues, according to a person familiar with the closed-door meeting.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who is Jewish, praised Schumer’s remarks.

“This is a gutsy, historic speech from Leader Schumer,” he posted on X, formerly Twitter. “I know he didn’t arrive at this conclusion casually or painlessly.”

It is unclear how the unusually direct call by Schumer will be received in Israel, where the next parliamentary elections are scheduled for October 2026. Many Israelis hold Netanyahu responsible for failing to stop the Oct. 7 cross-border raid by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and his popularity appears to have diminished as a result.

Protesters in Israel calling for early elections have charged that Netanyahu is making decisions based on keeping his right-wing coalition intact rather than Israel’s interests at a time of war. And they say he is endangering Israel’s strategic alliance with the U.S. by rejecting U.S. proposals for a postwar vision for Gaza in order to appease the far-right members of his government.

U.S. priorities in the region have increasingly been hampered by those far-right members of his Cabinet, who share Netanyahu’s opposition to Palestinian statehood and other aims that successive U.S. administrations have seen as essential to resolving Palestinian-Israeli conflicts in the long term.

In a hot-mic moment while speaking to lawmakers after his State of the Union address, Biden promised a “come to Jesus” moment with Netanyahu.

And Vice President Kamala Harris, Schumer and other lawmakers met last week in Washington with Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war Cabinet and a far more popular rival ofNetanyahu — a visit that drew a rebuke from the Israeli prime minister.

Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government in the war Cabinet soon after the Hamas attack. But Gantz is expected to leave the government once the heaviest fighting subsides, signaling the period of national unity has ended. A return to mass demonstrations could ramp up pressure on Netanyahu’s deeply unpopular coalition to hold early elections.

Schumer said that as the highest ranking Jewish elected official in the United States, he feels an obligation to speak out. He said hislast name derives from the Hebrew word shomer, or “guardian.”

“I also feel very keenly my responsibility as Shomer Yisroel — a guardian of the people of Israel,” he said.

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

“As a democracy, Israel has the right to choose its own leaders, and we should let the chips fall where they may,” Schumer said. “But the important thing is that Israelis are given a choice.”

Jalonick and Knickmeyer write for the Associated Press. AP writers Aamer Madhani and Lisa Mascaro in Washington, Stephen Groves in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.



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