Mar 14, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Schumer sparks Democratic discord with Netanyahu speech

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, wearing a dark blue suit jacket, white shirt, blue tie and glasses.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Photo: Tierney L. Cross/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) call for new elections in Israel and harsh criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was met with a divided reaction from his fellow Democrats on Thursday.

Why it matters: There's little love for Netanyahu among Democrats, but some pro-Israel lawmakers feel that calling for a change in a foreign ally's government is a step too far for a top U.S. official.

Driving the news: Schumer said in a Senate floor speech on Thursday morning that new elections are the "only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel."

  • "Nobody expects Prime Minister Netanyahu to do the things that must be done to break the cycle of violence, preserve Israel's credibility on the world stage, and work toward a two-state solution," he argued.
  • Schumer also added: "As a democracy, Israel has the right to choose its own leaders, and we should let the chips fall where they may."

What we're hearing: Three senior Senate Democratic aides told Axios the speech came as a surprise. The White House said Schumer provided them with advance notice about the speech.

What they're saying: Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, told Axios he and most Americans "likely share Schumer's perspective," but lambasted his call for new elections.

  • "It's as irresponsible for a senior Congressional leader to call for elections in Israel as it was for Netanyahu and Republicans to [breach] protocol by arranging his 2015 speech before Congress without White House consent," Phillips said.
  • "I would demand that there be no foreign influence on our elections, so I'm not in that," said staunchly pro-Israel Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.).
  • Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) said in a statement: "Although I have disagreements with Israel's government, I respect the Israelis' right to decide for themselves when to call elections and whom to choose as their leaders."

The other side: The speech received plaudits from progressive lawmakers, who said Schumer was well within his rights to comment on Israel's elections.

  • "We give $3.5 billion a year to Israel ... so this is very much an issue of concern for the American people and Sen. Schumer has every right to speak out on it," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
  • Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) argued that "this goes far beyond the Israel-Hamas war. This involves the entire region and also proxy battles with Iran, Russia and China."
  • "It really mattered that he made this statement, and it has significant potential to change the dynamics," Balint added.

Zoom in: Some lawmakers split the difference, diverging with Schumer's comments on Israel's elections but backing up his critiques of Netanyahu.

  • "It's certainly not up to America to dictate to Israel the schedule of its internal elections and who they choose. On the other hand, it is up to America to defend our principles," said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).
  • Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said in a statement that "Israel is an independent country and should select its own leaders through its own electoral process," but that the U.S.'s "substantial investment" gives it "the right to comment on the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu."

Between the lines: Democrats and the Biden administration have been growing increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu's government in the months since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

  • The deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians and political backlash from the American left have made it harder for Democrats to defend how Israel has conducted its war effort.
  • "There is a strong sense among the Democrats that we can't just be following the lead of Netanyahu who is captive to the extreme right-wing elements of his coalition," said Raskin.
  • "In my recollection in talking with [Democratic] members and other Jewish members, I can't think of a conversation that I've had with someone who was ... supportive of Netanyahu," said Balint.
Go deeper