Chuck Schumer's call for new Israeli elections sparks controversy

Chuck Schumer's call for new Israeli elections sparks controversy
"At this critical juncture, I believe a new election in Israel is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process..."
4 min read
Washington, DC
15 March, 2024
US Senator Chuck Schumer makes speech calling for new leadership in Israel [Getty]

A speech by US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday in which he blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the continued war in Gaza and called for new elections in Israel, has sparked strong reactions from across the political spectrum.

"At this critical juncture, I believe a new election in Israel is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel, at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government," Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday.

"Netanyahu lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence. He's in coalition with far-right extremists Smotrich & Ben-Gvir. He's too willing to tolerate the Gaza civilian toll—pushing support for Israel to new lows. Israel can't survive if it becomes a pariah," the senator wrote on social media, as he highlighted his speech that he knew would make waves.

While many on the left are welcoming this statement from Schumer, the highest ranking US Jewish elected official, for speaking up against the leader of an allied country that they see as exploiting US support, many on the right are pushing back against him for suggesting leadership change in another country.

"Israel is an independent democracy that decides for itself when elections are held and chooses its own leaders. America must continue to stand with our ally Israel and ensure it has the time and resources it needs to win this war," the Israel American Public Affairs Committee wrote on X.

"Hamas bears sole responsibility for this conflict. The hope for a brighter future for the Middle East begins with Israel’s decisive defeat of Hamas," the Israel lobby group continued.

Similarly, in a statement on their website, the American Jewish Committee said that they "do not believe it is appropriate for US officials to try to dictate the electoral future of any ally."

The group continued, "Israel is a sovereign democracy in the midst of a war of self-defense against a terrorist organization bent on massacring Jews and destroying Israel. The Israeli people will decide their own political path."

Republican House Majority Speaker Mike Johnson said, "It is highly inappropriate and simply wrong for Senator Schumer to be calling for new elections in Israel." 

He added, "We need to stand strong with Israel, but the White House and Senate Democrats are seemingly standing with and supporting Iran and its proxies instead."

In Israel, Netanyahu's Likud Party issued a statement denouncing Schumer's speech, calling on him to "refrain from undermining the Israeli government." While former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he "strongly opposes external political intervention in Israel's internal affairs".

"We are an independent nation, not a banana republic," he added. 

Unsurprisingly, Schumer's comments drew praise (with caveats) from progressives for his strong words against Netanyahu, who has generally seen only gentle nudges from US politicians amid his inflammatory rhetoric and Israel's daily bombardment of Gaza.

Over the past five months, Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 31,000 Palestinians in Gaza and wounded more than 73,000, most of them civilians. The past several weeks have seen reports of death due to malnutrition and dehydration due to lack of basic food and sanitation and the collapse of the healthcare system. Multiple human rights groups have described Israel's actions as genocide.

On the progressive YouTube show The Young Turks, host Cenk Uyghur, said, "Wow, they lost Schumer. If the right-wing government of Israel has lost Schumer and [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman, then they're in a world of trouble," describing the two men as bellwethers of the establishment. "That is very, very important."

However, his co-host Ana Kasparian opened by questioning Schumer's suggestion, as she put it, that Netanyahu had previously been "a good guy" who had "devolved into a bad guy." She also questioned if Netanyahu's replacement would be much better.

Some progressives, such as former congressional candidate Nina Turner of Ohio, praised activists for what she sees as their voices reaching the ranks of the political establishment. However, she also criticised Schumer for his continued support for US military aid to Israel.

With Schumer's speech seeing a range of reactions from across the political spectrum, one thing that's clear is the significance of his remarks.

In addition to being the highest ranking Jewish member of the Senate, he also has a long history of knowing Netanyahu and is not regarded as a major critic of the Israeli prime minister. Earlier this month, he held meetings with House members to push for the passage of a $95 billion spending bill that would include around $14 billion for Israel. 

Moreover, as a Democrat, Schumer is aware of what the continued bombing of Gaza and a potential invasion of Rafah, which Netanyahu continues to threaten, means for the 2024 presidential election. 

In the states of Michigan and Minnesota, around 13 and 19 percent respectively voted "uncommitted" in their recent Democratic primaries. If these voters and many of their progressive leaders won't get through to the US president or the Israeli government, many are hoping a longtime friend and ally will.