Schumer’s Israel rebuke leaves AIPAC in a delicate position

When Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor on Thursday to issue a sharp rebuke of Israel’s leadership amid that country’s war with Hamas, he broke with longstanding precedent in American foreign policy.

But so far, the reaction from the most prominent pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has been largely muted, underscoring the difficulties it faces navigating a conflict that’s testing its own political influence. The war is also proving increasingly fraught for Democrats, and making things uncomfortable between AIPAC and some longtime allies in the party.

AIPAC did not even name Schumer in its response to his comments, in which he called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “major obstacle to peace” and said new elections were needed. Instead, the group emphasized Israel’s sovereignty, called for more resources for the country and blamed Hamas for the conflict.

“Israel is an independent democracy that decides for itself when elections are held and chooses its own leaders,” AIPAC said in its statement.

Schumer’s speech put the group in a “difficult position,” said Bobby Rechnitz, a California businessman close to Netanyahu, noting that historically AIPAC has not gone after American leaders in power, such as a speaker, majority leader, minority leader, sitting president or secretary of state.

“They may be very uncomfortable about this statement, and they may feel blindsided by it, but insofar as action, I don’t know what they can do to try to influence change at this point once this type of speech was made,” he said.

Still, Rechnitz, a Republican, argued that Schumer had thrown AIPAC and other similar organizations that support Democrats “under the bus.”

Other AIPAC donors privately echoed Rechnitz’s concerns, particularly Schumer’s call for another election in Israel.

The group is on track to spend $100 million during the 2024 cycle to help elect pro-Israel candidates, eyeing the demise of progressives it has deemed hostile to Israel. Among the targets are Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who face competitive primary challengers. Schumer, a longtime friend of AIPAC and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official, is not up for reelection until 2028 and even then, would be a highly unlikely target.

So far, he doesn’t seem worried about ruffling feathers.

“My decades long relationship with AIPAC goes beyond any one president and any one Prime Minister,” Schumer said in a statement to POLITICO. “We both share a deeply rooted love for Israel and the common goal to preserving the bipartisan support for Israel. We will continue to work together to strengthen and support the U.S.-Israel bond.”

One former Schumer aide, granted anonymity to speak freely about an old boss, said Schumer’s remarks appeared to be marketed toward “domestic consumption, [rather] than international consumption.” The speech seemed political, given the level of concern about Israel’s actions within his caucus, the former staffer said.

Democrats are under increasing pressure from their base to push back on the Israeli government, whose bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of Democrats voted “uncommitted” in primary contests across the country in recent weeks as a rebuke to President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

“[AIPAC] recognizes that Schumer has a left flank problem just like the Israel lobby has a left flank problem,” said one Democratic consultant who works with major Jewish donors, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “You stick with the guy who’s always been with you, but you also let him have the breathing room to say what he needs to say if it helps him with his left flank.”

Biden, whose staff was given advance notice of Schumer’s remarks, has declined to distance himself from the Senate majority leader on the issue. On Friday, the president said Schumer had delivered a “good speech” and shared the same sentiments as many Americans.

One strategist who works with several Jewish groups said there’s been private support within the community for Schumer’s remarks, although some have questioned his timing.

But certainly AIPAC would have to be “living under a rock to not be aware of just how toxic and unpopular Netanyahu is both in the United States and in Israel,” the person said.

AIPAC is also sophisticated enough to know that its relationships with Democratic leadership depends on whether those leaders can maintain the support of voters, said one former Democratic Senate aide who has worked with AIPAC. Schumer’s relationship with AIPAC has always been “strong, resolute, frank and open,” the person added.

“They understand bare-knuckle politics and how it works,” the person said. “True career-long relationships are not done away with, with one statement, one vote, or one policy position.”

It’s not the first time AIPAC has had to walk a fine line working within America’s centers of power.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the progressive pro-Israel group J Street, pointed to a previous confrontation between AIPAC and Democrats: The Iran nuclear deal of 2015 intended to stymie Iran’s nuclear capabilities, an effort against which AIPAC aggressively campaigned.

At the time, Schumer was forced to navigate that tension between AIPAC and a Democratic administration, and he ultimately voted against the Iran deal. Meanwhile, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then chair of the Democratic National Committee, endorsed the deal. AIPAC has continued to support her.

“[AIPAC said], ‘If you, God forbid, vote for this thing and support [Barack] Obama on this deal, we will never speak to you again, we will run candidates [against] you, never raise another dollar,’” said Ben-Ami, whose group has long been sharply critical of AIPAC. “Then they did speak to them again, they didn’t run candidates against them. I think there’s a lot of bark here, not as much bite.”

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