US Senate leader Chuck Schumer calls for new Israeli elections

US Senate leader Chuck Schumer calls for new Israeli elections
Chuck Schumer's comments sparked backlash from Israel's governing Likud party which emphasised that Israel is 'not a banana republic'.
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Chuck Schumers comments come amid a deteriorating relationship between the Biden and Netanyahu administrations [Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images]

The leader of the US Senate called Thursday for Israel to hold new elections in the most strident criticism yet by a senior American official of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of the war in Gaza.

The rebuke from Chuck Schumer, the highest-ranking elected Jewish American in history, came amid increased pressure from President Joe Biden over the mounting death toll in the conflict, sparked by the 7 October attacks by Hamas militants.

"As a democracy, Israel has the right to choose its own leaders, and we should let the chips fall where they may. But the important thing is that Israelis are given a choice," said Schumer, the head of the chamber's Democratic majority, without suggesting a timeline for a vote.

"There needs to be a fresh debate about the future of Israel after October 7."

In a sign of the worsening ties between Washington and the Netanyahu government, Schumer said the Israeli leader was one of four "major obstacles" to peace, alongside Hamas, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and radical right-wing Israelis.

He accused Netanyahu of surrounding himself with extremists - singling out cabinet ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir - and of being "too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows."

"Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah," Schumer, an outspoken ally of the Israeli government who visited the country just days after the attacks, told colleagues on the Senate floor.

The conflict began when Hamas militants attacked Israel last October, resulting in about 1,160 deaths, mostly civilians, according to an AFP count based on official figures.

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Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel has carried out an indiscriminate campaign of bombardment and ground operations in Gaza, killing at least 31,341 people - most of them civilians.

'Not a banana republic'

Schumer's remarks were welcomed by liberal lobby group J Street as a "historic shift" for pro-Israel Democrats that reflected the views of the "overwhelming majority" of American Jews.

But they sparked an angry pushback from Netanyahu's Likud party which retorted that Israel "is not a banana republic but an independent and proud democracy that elected Prime Minister Netanyahu."

Israel's envoy to Washington, Michael Herzog, called the comments "unhelpful" while former prime minister Naftali Bennett called out "external political intervention" in Israel's affairs.

Republicans in Congress were just as critical, with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell dismissing the speech "grotesque and hypocritical" and House Speaker Mike Johnson decrying what he called a "highly inappropriate" intervention.

Eight Democratic senators called on Biden this week to end US aid to Israel if it blocks safe passage of US humanitarian aid into Gaza, while Biden has intensified his criticism of Netanyahu.

The president said recently an invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah would be a "red line" without credible civilian protection plans in place.

The United Nations is warning of famine amid hampered efforts to get more aid into the war-devastated Gaza Strip, where desperate residents have stormed relief shipments amid reports that at least 27 have died due to starvation.

Daily aid airdrops by multiple nations have been taking place but the air and sea missions are not seen as adequate, and the UN has reported difficulty in accessing Gaza's north with aid.

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State Department officials distanced the federal government from Schumer's comments, making clear that the senator "speaks for himself."

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Schumer had notified the White House of what he planned to say, adding that the administration fully respected his right to speak out.

"(The) issue of elections is in the parliamentary process of the Israeli government, the government elected by the Israeli people," Kirby said.