May 18, 2021 - World

Schumer's Israel vise

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is seen addressing an AIPAC convention.
Sen. Chuck Schumer addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2014. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's longtime support for Israel puts him on a collision course with the progressive wing of his party as the conflict between Israel and Hamas worsens.

Why it matters: This is the toughest political position the New York Democrat has been in since becoming majority leader. The fighting in the Middle East is dividing his party — and creating a clear rift among its different wings.

  • Deepening the challenge: Schumer is up for re-election next year and one of his potential opponents — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — is one of the most vocal progressive critics of the actions taken by Israel's leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • While President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are similarly boxed in after ascending to power in a pro-Israel environment, Schumer faces this problem most acutely.

The backdrop: Schumer, the first Jewish Senate majority leader, rose to prominence in part thanks to a career in New York politics built on a foundation of pro-Israel credentials.

  • He frequently bucked President Obama on Middle East policy, including opposing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
  • That put him at odds with the majority of his party but aligned him with Israel. He later criticized President Trump for leaving the deal and said a new agreement should be negotiated.
  • In 2019, Schumer delivered a speech at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting in which he said: "You can be, all at once, completely Jewish, completely pro-Israel and completely American."
  • It was a poke at another Squad member — Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — who had leveled sharp criticisms against supporters of Israel.

Flash-forward to the current crisis. So far, Schumer has largely been silent even as other historically fierce defenders of Israel, such as Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), have spoken up.

  • Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, shocked his colleagues over the weekend when he said he was "deeply troubled" by Netanyahu's military actions. The statement turned the heads of Israel's top politicians, Axios' Barak Ravid said.
  • Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), who's Jewish, led a group of 29 Democratic senators in calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
  • Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) — the top members of the Foreign Relations' Middle East subcommittee — issued the first bipartisan statement in support of a ceasefire.

Schumer told reporters Monday he agrees with the Murphy-Young statement and wants to see a ceasefire "reached quickly."

  • He did not discuss the issue during his floor remarks — one of the most prominent stages he commands as majority leader.
  • His comments came shortly before Biden announced he backed a ceasefire for the first time during a call with Netanyahu.
  • Meanwhile, a series of progressives have condemned Israel's behavior under Netanyahu.

Between the lines: Schumer has worked diligently to solidify his support on the left, strengthening his position against Ocasio-Cortez or another progressive in 2022.

  • Navigating the current crisis in the Middle East — particularly when his fellow members are being far more vocal on the issue — is a foreign policy challenge that has a larger domestic impact on him.
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