Could Chuck Schumer's anti-Netanyahu speech embolden the Israeli Prime Minister?

Speech from Senate Majority Leader marked a 'very significant escalation', but some experts believe it could backfire

US Senate majority Leader Chuck Schumer called on Israel to hold new elections. Bloomberg
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Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in US history and one of Washington's most senior advocates of Israel, has declared that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an obstacle to peace and endorsed Israel hosting new elections to oust his right-wing government.

Mr Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, gave a nearly hour-long oration on Thursday that has elicited strong reactions, with some Israel watchers saying the move could backfire.

His speech went “as far as it can go in terms of escalating statements from the United States,” said Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East Programme at the Washington-based Wilson Centre think tank.

Mr Schumer accused Mr Netanyahu of having “lost his way” and suggested his government's actions on Gaza have turned Israel into a “pariah opposed by the rest of the world”.

“It's a very significant escalation,” Ms Khurma told The National.

But amid a divided reception to Mr Schumer's Senate floor speech, some have called into question whether its impact could boomerang into a boost for Mr Netanyahu's far-right coalition as it continues to wage war in Gaza.

“Netanyahu doesn't like this type of pressure and always pushes back,” said Ms Khurma.

Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Herzog, responded swiftly, arguing that the speech was “unhelpful, all the more so as Israel is at war against the genocidal terror organisation Hamas, to comment on the domestic political scene of a democratic ally”.

The address incited a spectrum of responses from Israeli officials, including from Benny Gantz, a political rival of Mr Netanyahu, who said the US senator had “erred in his remarks” and that “external intervention” was “counterproductive and unacceptable.”

Brian Katulis, senior fellow for US foreign policy and senior adviser to the President at Washington's Middle East Institute think tank, called the speech “amateur hour”.

Mr Netanyahu “is probably at his lowest point historically ever in terms of domestic political support. This statement could contribute to his revival,” he told The National.

A January poll found that only 15 per cent of Israelis want Mr Netanyahu to stay in office after the war on Hamas in Gaza ends, even though a majority said they wanted the military campaign in Gaza to continue.

“Democrats have suffered from [Donald] 'Trump Derangement Syndrome', and likewise many of them have 'Bibi Derangement Syndrome', in that their behaviour leads to statements and actions that end up making them stronger,” Mr Katulis added, using Mr Netanyahu's nickname.

The speech, which occurred as ceasefire and hostage release negotiations between Israel and Hamas this week saw significant developments, was also “ill-timed,” Mr Katulis argued.

William Wechsler, senior director at the Atlantic Council think tank’s Rafik Hariri Centre and Middle East programmes, said it was “smart” for Mr Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, to have given the speech as it is one way to signal the Biden administration’s position without it coming directly from the White House.

“Through Schumer … it gives some degree of deductions and real deniability for the Biden administration, because it wasn’t an official US government position. It was a position of one senator,” Mr Wechsler told The National.

He acknowledged there is fear among some of the Israeli prime minister’s opponents that “such actions might in fact have the opposite effect and reinforce [Netanyahu’s] hold on his coalition.”

“Because now it will look like you’re just taking orders from Chuck Schumer,” he said.

In his criticism of the Netanyahu government, Mr Schumer adamantly defended Zionism.

Speaking to his Jewish heritage he declared: “We love Israel in our bones. What Israel has meant to my generation within living memory of the Holocaust is impossible to measure.”

Mr Weschler also added that he “suspects what [Schumer] is thinking, is that after the initial negative reaction from Israel has passed, it will contribute to a greater appreciation of Israel.”

The Democratic establishment in Washington, including the Biden administration, has cautiously endorsed Mr Schumer's speech.

Chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Ben Cardin, used the opportunity to renew his call for a two-state solution, and said Mr Schumer “outlined a blueprint for what's necessary in fostering peace between Israelis and Palestinians”.

“As a Jewish American whose family came to America in 1902 from Lithuania to escape pogroms, I too have a deep and personal connection to Israel’s security and survival, and I’d like to thank Leader Schumer for framing the challenges before us in such historic perspective,” Mr Cardin said.

“I encourage every American to listen to this speech,” he added.

And President Joe Biden told reporters on Friday that he thought it was “a good speech”.

Mr Schumer “probably said what the Biden administration cannot say,” Ms Khurma added.

She believes that Mr Schumer's rare criticism provided what many Americans “needed to hear” amid the “harrowing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.”

“Anyone looking at these images is just completely shaken by what's happening. You don't have to have a connection to the Middle East to be deeply impacted by the killing of children and by the starvation, and how it's particularly impacting children and innocent civilians,” she added.

And with the Biden administration “making very clear” that it is unlikely to condition aid to Israel, which some progressive Democrats in Congress have lobbied for, “putting pressure through public statements” seems to be the only avenue leaders in Washington are willing or able to take.

The bulk of criticism in Washington against Mr Schumer's speech, namely from Republicans, accuses the Majority Leader of meddling in an ally's democratic process.

House foreign affairs committee chairman Mike McCaul called the speech “way out of line”, adding that he believes Mr Schumer “should apologise”.

“It’s not our role to question democracies and elections … It’s our role to support them against terrorist organisations,” Mr McCaul told reporters.

As for that critique, Mr Katulis doesn't mince words: “grow up,” he says.

“That is the weakest argument … that's what democracies do, and debates bleed over,” he said, pointing to when Mr Netanyahu himself came to Washington to help the Republican campaign against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Updated: March 16, 2024, 4:36 AM