Cosmopolitics by Elise Labott
The Voice in your Head
Did Schumer want to make a point or a difference in Gaza?

Did Schumer want to make a point or a difference in Gaza?

His speech, while well-intentioned, will not advance the U.S. goals of changing the course of the war

When I first heard Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's call for new Israeli elections and his sharp critique of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was hard to shake off the sense of disbelief - was this not the epitome of foreign interference?

To recap: Schumer called Netanyahu one of the "four major obstacles to peace" — along with Hamas, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and extremist right-wing Israelis – and urged Israelis to hold new elections.

“As a lifelong supporter of Israel, it has become clear to me: The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7,” Schumer added, referring to Hamas’s attack. “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.”

It felt like an audacious, even outrageous, step into the sovereign politics of a democratic ally’s political drama. And it was unprecedented, at least in my decades of covering U.S. foreign policy.

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Talk about timing for crossing the line. The speech, undoubtedly coordinated with the White House, came hot on the heels of the State of the Union, where President Biden placed democracy itself on the ballot. Biden didn’t explicitly endorse any of Schumer’s criticisms or his call for new elections but, in essence, embraced them by calling the address a “good speech.”

Schumer had barely left the Senate floor before Minority Leader Mitch McConnell disavowed the display as “grotesque and hypocritical for Americans who hyperventilate about interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of a democratically elected leader of Israel.”

A full day of conversations with friends and sources in Israel, spanning the spectrum from Netanyahu critics to begrudging supporters, found Schumer's boldness landing somewhere between highly inappropriate and intriguingly necessary. Several people I spoke to, even among those critical of Netanyahu, said that while the current government was far from perfect, it was the outcome of a democratic process.

Yet some others couldn't help but see Schumer’s move as some form of tough love, an expression of deep concern for Israel's future from someone who has been a lifelong supporter of the country.

After all, Schumer is the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress in history and, like Biden, one of the Democrats most supportive of Israel and Netanyahu himself. Schumer was the only Senate Democrat who didn’t criticize Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress lobbying against the Iran nuclear deal.

That’s why at least some Israelis expressed a grudging respect for Schumer's stance – one from a seasoned politician and a friend who understands the stakes, not just for Israel but for the region and the world. Tough love hurts, but deep down, you know there’s truth to it.

“Nothing has changed no matter what the US has done,” remarked one Israeli friend. “So they have gone the extra mile, even if we don’t like it, because they really care about Israel.”

Schumer’s assertion that Netanyahu has "lost his way," prioritizing political survival over the best interests of Israel, and his alignment with far-right elements in the government, highlights a growing unease – not just in the U.S. but in Israel as well – with policies that push Israel towards becoming a pariah state in the international community.

Schumer’s remarks, while tinged with absurdity and flying in the face of diplomatic convention, were still viewed by some Israelis as more balanced compared to the remarks of Biden over the past week, which focused exclusively on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and seemingly ignored the events of October 7 that precipitated the war.

“Biden felt very sided and made a lot of Israelis feel uneasy,” another Israeli said of the president’s State of the Union address and subsequent comments made by Vice President Kamala Harris and others. “It felt like they were putting all the pressure on Israel. But Schumer put pressure on Hamas. He talked about the values and the interests of Israel, about the bias against Israel and about our right to exist. So this is why I look at him as speaking differently.”

Schumer’s approach recognizes the limitations of traditional diplomacy and the complex knot of political, social, and ethical threads the U.S. is trying to needle. On one hand, America stands firmly with Israel, a key ally, defending its right to security and self-defense. On the other, there's an unmistakable push for Israel to reconsider its current trajectory—for the sake of its own democratic values, its international standing, and the future peace and stability in the region.

But there is a fine line between offering constructive guidance and appearing to undermine an ally's sovereignty at a moment of unparalleled vulnerability. And it could backfire – having the untended consequence of either playing into the hands of the far-right members of Netanyahu’s cabinet or Hamas, which may raise the price it was asking for the ceasefire and hostage deal that is being negotiated.

Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog called the remarks “unproductive” and “counterproductive to our common goals.” And former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, no stranger to Mideast diplomacy, told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations Schumer’s remarks were “unwise.”

Aside from being a democracy whose people get to choose their leadership and when to hold elections, Rice noted Israelis “get their backs up in waves is if you keep telling them what to do.”

She added, “while I do think that this war in Gaza needs to end, let's not forget how this war in Gaza started, and it started with the most brutal attack on Israel and the killing of more Jews than at any time since the Holocaust. And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about how we give our advice to the Israelis.”

The trauma of October 7 is etched deeply into the national consciousness, a wound that has galvanized widespread backing for the government's military actions, even among those who harbor little love for Netanyahu himself. This collective memory and the fear of reliving such horror contribute to a societal consensus that may view foreign critiques, however well-intentioned, as an underestimation of their lived reality and existential fears.

“Not only is it highly 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,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said.

Aaron David Miller, a former longtime U.S. Mideast peace negotiator now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, laid out a critical question for Biden as he works to improve the situation in Gaza.

“Does he want to make a point or does he want to make a difference,” Miller told me. “If he wants to make a difference, you can’t just do that by pressuring Netanyahu.”

Miller suggests in his latest piece in the New York Times that the Biden administration's approach, marked by frustration over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza yet restrained by a deep-seated commitment to Israel, could be characterized as passive-aggressive. On the surface, there's a steady stream of vocal criticism aimed at Netanyahu's government. President Biden and his team have not shied away from expressing their displeasure, calling for ceasefires, and highlighting the need for humanitarian aid access.

Yet, beneath this veneer of disapproval lies a hesitancy to wield the considerable leverage at America's disposal. The U.S. has significant tools it could employ to press Israel towards a change in course—conditional aid, a shift in UN support, even demands for a ceasefire through Security Council resolutions. Yet these measures remain largely untouched.

Moreover, the administration has voiced its concerns against assaulting Rafah without a credible civilian protection plan, yet they haven’t instructed Israelis to stand down.

This nuanced approach, striving to influence without imposing any consequences, embodies the inherent tensions in U.S.-Israel relations – one that seeks to influence without resorting to drastic measures that could advance the president’s goals but strain the alliance and impact U.S. domestic politics.

“Anyone who wants big pressure on Israel needs to answer the question how pressure alone advance the President's goals,” Miller says. The pictures in Gaza aren’t going to change, he adds unless the war ends.

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Cosmopolitics by Elise Labott
The Voice in your Head
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