US politicians spar over Israel support after Netanyahu speaks with Senate Republicans

Leading progressive senator tells The National the Israeli Prime Minister 'wants to politicise his meetings'

The virtual meeting with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu comes as the Biden administration struggles to stave off a potential Israeli assault on Rafah in Gaza. AP
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday held a meeting by video link with US Senate Republicans, days after the Democratic majority leader called for his removal.

The meeting comes as President Joe Biden‘s administration struggles to avert an Israeli assault on Rafah, the southern city in Gaza where more than a million Palestinians have sought shelter amid the ongoing war.

The closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans, which The National confirmed with Israeli officials on Wednesday morning, has further fuelled partisan disputes over US support for Israel.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided he wants to politicise his meetings,” Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren told The National.

“The United States should follow through on its policies to support the nation of Israel, but that does not mean giving a big lift to Netanyahu.”

The right-wing Israeli leader gave Senate Republicans a presentation and hosted a question-and-answer session during a weekly party lunch, minority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after the meeting.

Mr Netanyahu spoke to Republicans, the minority party in the Senate, as the White House struggles to dissuade Israel from an incursion into Rafah without a “clear plan” for getting civilians to safety.

The Israeli leader and Mr Biden spoke on the phone on Monday for the first time in more than a month.

Wednesday's briefing followed comments from Democratic majority leader Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in US history, in which he described Mr Netanyahu an obstacle to peace and called on Israel to hold elections.

Republicans have joined Israeli officials in condemning Mr Schumer's remarks as an attack on Israel's democracy.

Mr McConnell said that he had emphasised to Mr Netanyahu that “it is not the business of the United States” to “interfere” with an ally, and that “bipartisan support for Israel seems to be cracking”.

Mr Netanyahu provided an “update” on the war, on the release of the remaining hostages being held in Gaza and efforts to defeat Hamas, other Republican senators said.

Mr Schumer on Wednesday avoided questions over whether he had declined an invitation from Mr Netanyahu to meet this week, but said “when you make these issues partisan, you hurt the cause of helping Israel”.

Leading Democrats, including Senate foreign relations committee chairman Ben Cardin, dismissed Republican claims that they are the more pro-Israel party.

Mr Cardin warned it was a major mistake for Israel to politicise its relationship with Washington.

“I have a hard time understanding some of the Prime Minister's strategies,” he said.

“The Republicans have clearly decided that it's more important to score political points than to help Israel.”

Mr Cardin was referring to Republicans stalling on a major foreign aid package that would provide billions of dollars in extra funding to Israel.

Updated: March 20, 2024, 9:13 PM