Chuck Schumer and Democrats’ New Line on “Netanyahu’s War”

The majority leader’s recent speech exemplifies his party’s effort to isolate Netanyahu and pacify voters without changing policy.

Alex Kane
March 26, 2024

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On March 14th, Senator Chuck Schumer—the Democratic majority leader and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the US—stepped onto the Senate floor to deliver a policy address about Israel’s war on Gaza. Taking care to remind listeners of his pro-Israel bona fides—“We love Israel in our bones,” he said of himself and other American Jews—Schumer went on to say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had become a “major obstacle to peace” who had allowed “his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel.” The prime minister, Schumer said, is “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza” and “won’t commit to a military operation in Rafah that prioritizes protecting civilian life.” Significantly, Schumer then called for Israel to hold elections—a thinly-veiled expression of support for Netanyahu’s ouster and the replacement of his far-right government with a more centrist alternative.

Across the mainstream press, Schumer’s remarks, which are seen to have President Joe Biden’s tacit approval, have been understood as a signal of a fundamental shift in the US–Israel alliance. (“With Schumer’s Israel remarks, the American gloves are off,” read one representative Politico headline.) This belief stems in part from reports that Biden administration officials allowed the speech to go through even after Schumer shared it with them a day in advance. After the address was delivered, Biden also called it “a good speech” that expressed “serious concern” shared by many, though he stopped short of publicly endorsing any of Schumer’s critiques. Journalists have theorized that Schumer’s newly pugnacious posture serves the president’s interests, increasing the pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister while sparing the White House a messy, public breach.

Schumer’s address is the most notable of several recent public statements in which Democrats have positioned Israel’s ongoing genocidal assault on Gaza—which has killed at least 32,000 Palestinians and engineered a looming famine for over a million—as “Netanyahu’s war.” Last month, Senator Peter Welch of Vermont used that framing when he criticized “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s military campaign in Gaza”; Senator Mark Warner of Virginia echoed it in a March Senate Intelligence Committee hearing where he opposed “Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conduct in the war” and said that it “threatens to undermine support for Israel in the long term.” After Schumer advanced a similar framing in his own speech, Welch said the senator had “told truths that have long needed to be said about Israel’s political leadership.”

But despite Democrats’ repeated suggestion that Netanyahu is the impetus for Israel’s war, political analysts say that in reality the prime minister’s actions are in step with Israel’s political mainstream. “Schumer is operating in this fantasy that if you get rid of Netanyahu, you might be able to get somebody else who’s more moderate who could then save the relationship between the US and Israel under the pretense of support for progressive values and democracy,” said Omar Baddar, a Palestinian American political analyst. But this narrative ignores how Israeli politicians almost across the board agree with Israel’s conduct in Gaza, as do the majority of Israelis. Yair Lapid, the former prime minister and head of the Israeli opposition, supports the ongoing assault, as does war cabinet member Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main political rival and the man who, according to polling, would become prime minister if Israel held elections today. Matt Duss, executive vice president at the Center for International Policy and a former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, noted that many Democrats might welcome Gantz replacing Netanyahu, but the change of guard would alter little about Israel’s conduct in Gaza. “There is a danger to the idea that replacing Netanyahu will fix everything. It will not,” Duss said. “It could create a grace period where bad things continue to happen, but the US feels better about it. We need to oppose that.”

Instead of constituting a substantive shift in US support for Israel, experts say, Democrats’ emboldened critique of Netanyahu should be understood as an attempt to respond to growing voter frustration without changing policy, as the Biden administration remains unwilling to use US aid and arms exports to Israel as leverage to demand a change in behavior. In this context, the choice to focus on Netanyahu “is a political decision to avoid outright criticism of Israel’s war conduct,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. For Schumer, in particular, blaming Netanyahu as an individual was a way “to avoid the implication that he is lessening his support for the Israeli state or the Israeli people,” she said. “Instead, Schumer is focusing on a man who is unpopular among Democrats to say, ‘See, we are standing up for our values, so voters should stop being mad at us.’”

Democrats’ current criticism of Netanyahu builds on a long history. Ever since the presidency of Bill Clinton, Democratic leaders have clashed with the right-wing prime minister over Israeli settlement expansion and diplomacy with Iran. These tensions grew even more pronounced during Barack Obama’s presidency, when Netanyahu pushed back against Obama’s efforts to create a Palestinian state and, in an unprecedented snub of an American president by an Israeli leader, addressed a joint session of Congress at the request of Republicans to inveigh against the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s most important foreign policy achievement. The Democratic base’s dislike of Netanyahu sharpened further during Donald Trump’s presidency, as the prime minister fervently embraced the Republican president.

But Schumer’s speech marks a new phase of Democratic criticism of Netanyahu. “Chuck Schumer has been on the right wing of the Democratic Party when it comes to Israel/Palestine,” said Hadar Susskind, the president and CEO of the progressive Zionist group Americans for Peace Now. “He upheld the old line that there should be no daylight between the US and Israel.” Indeed, the senator repeatedly sided with Netanyahu in the prime minister’s disputes with Obama. And in recent years, Schumer has stayed silent when the Biden administration has criticized Netanyahu and his far-right coalition for expanding illegal West Bank settlements. In the words of Yousef Munayyer, the head of the Palestine/Israel Program at the Arab Center Washington DC, “Netanyahu has always been a problem, but he’s been a problem that Washington and Schumer have been willing to tolerate.” This pattern continued after the Hamas-led October 7th attack, when Schumer initially joined Republicans in wholeheartedly backing Israel’s assault on Gaza—vowing that he would “lead the effort in the United States Senate to provide Israel with the support required” and leading a Senate delegation to Israel, where he had what he called a “good and productive” meeting with Netanyahu.

Analysts say that Schumer’s subsequent shift to a more critical stance is both sincere and strategic. “There is no doubt that Schumer cares deeply about Israel and its future, and he truly believes that Netanyahu is leading it down a very dangerous path,” said Susskind. At the same time, “Schumer is a smart politician who reads polls and follows elections and sees that Gaza is a sticking point that may cost Democrats votes and may disrupt part of the Democratic coalition,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute.

But ultimately, the Democratic narrative about “Netanyahu’s war” doesn’t reflect reality—not only because the assault on Gaza enjoys broad support in Israel, but also because Israel could not continue its assault without a constant supply of US arms and military funding. Senior Democrats’ fixation on the Israeli prime minister thus serves to sideline debate about US policies that could actually bring the war to an end. “Refusing to condition aid or impose sanctions—or do anything that would actually have a chance of influencing Netanyahu—shows that the Biden administration and Democratic Party leadership are not interested in ending the Gaza assault. They’re just interested in managing it,” said Tariq Kenney-Shawa, US policy fellow at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. While anonymous US officials have repeatedly told news outlets that the Biden administration is considering conditioning aid to Israel or slowing down weapons shipments, no such move has occurred; indeed, on Monday, the State Department said that Israel had complied with the requirement that countries receiving US weapons follow international law, despite a wide range of flagrant violations documented by numerous human rights organizations.

In his speech, Schumer did say that the US will be forced to “[use] our leverage” to reshape Israeli policy if “Netanyahu’s current coalition remains in power after the war . . . and continues to pursue dangerous and inflammatory policies.” Duss called it significant that Schumer had put the question of US “leverage” on the table, noting that while the senator is “not saying, ‘let’s just cut aid today,’ he is pushing the door open” for that outcome. But others doubt that Schumer’s remarks will lead to real change. “I can’t imagine Schumer pushing conditions on aid through,” said Khaled Elgindy, director of the Middle East Institute’s program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian affairs, noting that Schumer “wasn’t even willing to go to bat for UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency], and that’s low-hanging fruit because he at least claims to care about the humanitarian situation.” (Elgindy was referring to the recently-passed spending bill that bans US funding for the UN agency until March 2025, which Schumer voted in favor of.)

Ultimately, policy analysts and human rights advocates say Schumer’s speech reveals how cautious Democratic leadership remains on the fundamental issue of support for Israel. By seeking to displace voters’ growing opposition to the state’s human rights abuses onto the sole figure of Netanyahu, lawmakers seem to be reaching for a bygone era of bipartisan consensus. “Schumer and the party leadership are struggling to catch up to the grassroots,” Elgindy said, “but most of them are still stuck in a timewarp with regard to what Israel is and has become.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.