Schumer vs. Netanyahu: Senate leader's Israeli government critique keeps shaking the Hill

Chuck Schumer and Benjamin Netanyahu are in increasingly open conflict after the Senate majority leader criticized the Israeli prime minister’s handling of the war in Gaza.

The remarkable friction between the Democrat, who is the highest-ranked Jewish elected official in U.S. history, and the Israeli leader grew on Wednesday as Netanyahu spoke to Senate Republicans, less than a week after Schumer said “Israel must make some significant course corrections” and called for new elections to replace Netanyahu.

Netanyahu delivered video remarks — amid heightened security in the Capitol — to Republicans on the status of the war, according to multiple senators, and blasted Schumer’s past comments in response to a question.

“He said that he thought Schumer’s remarks were wholly inappropriate,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), echoing that of four other GOP senators. “And then he said, ‘you know, if you want me to be more frank, I thought they were outrageous.’ And he said, ‘Israel would never, never purport to tell the United States how to run our elections, who to elect and no sovereign state would [permit] that kind of interference.'”

Schumer forcefully defended his speech, which drew warm words from President Joe Biden, while reiterating his criticism of Netanyahu on Wednesday.

“When you make these issues partisan you hurt the cause of Israel,” he told reporters. “I gave this speech out of a real love for Israel. … We called only for there to be an election after hostilities [in Gaza are over].”

Earlier in the day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trained his ire on Democrats — and Schumer — in a floor speech, slamming his colleagues on the left for “egregious and hypocritical attempts to influence Israeli domestic politics.”

“They’re an affront to the very independence of the state of Israel, a sovereign nation, a robust democracy and one of America’s closest allies and friends,” McConnell said.

McConnell’s remarks follow a speech by the majority leader last week that included the New York Democrat’s harshest rebuke of Israel yet.

“Our Democratic colleagues don’t have an anti-Bibi problem,” McConnell said. “They have an anti-Israel problem. What else are we supposed to make of the way Democrats have fallen in line behind the position the Democratic leader expressed here on the floor last week?”

The pointed back-and-forth between the Senate leaders captures the political churn caused by growing Democratic concerns about humanitarian conditions in Gaza. On Wednesday morning, a group of Senate Democrats penned a letter to President Joe Biden calling on his administration to establish a path for recognizing a non-militarized Palestinian state.

The letter, led by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), was signed by 19 Democrats in total. That number includes Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who are both up for reelection this year in vulnerable seats.

“Given the severity of the current crisis, this moment requires determined U.S. leadership that must move beyond facilitation,” the letter wrote, seeking U.S. engagement with a state that would “be governed by a revitalized and reformed Palestinian Authority.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are facing their own high-stakes quandaries over U.S.-Israel relations. Speaker Mike Johnson indicated Wednesday he had a “lengthy” conversation with Netanyahu and mulled whether to invite the Israeli leader to address Congress.

Asked about former President Donald Trump’s recent comments that Jewish people who vote for Democrats “hate Israel” and their religion, Johnson offered only the slightest rebuke of his rhetoric.

“I don’t speak for President Trump, but I understand the sentiment he’s trying to express, if you look at the voting records,” Johnson said.

Netanyahu spoke with Senate Republicans on Wednesday via video at their conference lunch. The Israeli prime minister also asked to speak to Senate Democrats, but Schumer declined. Schumer, per a spokesperson, “made it clear that he does not think these discussions should happen in a partisan manner.”

Schumer’s speech from last week continues to also divide House Democrats — many of whom called it a necessary rebuke that represents how many staunch supporters of Israel feel toward Netanyahu’s leadership.

“He said what a lot of us are already keenly aware of: You can love Israel without loving Netanyahu,” said Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) in an interview of Schumer.

“We have a lot of familiarity with people who think that their personal fortunes are bigger than the country they represent.”

And Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), another prominent Jewish Democrat, praised Schumer’s remarks while not mincing words about Netanyahu’s leadership.

“I view Netanyahu as the worst leader in Jewish history — not Israeli history, Jewish history,” Nadler said in an interview. “His only plan as to how to keep himself in power. That’s all he cares about. He’s leading to catastrophe for the Israelis and for the Palestinians.”

However, that’s not the consensus view among Democrats toward Schumer’s remarks. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), previously the chamber’s number two Democrat, criticized the approach by the Senate majority leader.

“My own view is that it would have been better for him to do that privately rather than giving a sense of solace to the terrorists — to Hamas,” Hoyer said in an interview.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a staunch Israeli ally, declined to comment on Schumer’s remarks.

Asked if it was appropriate for Netanyahu to respond in U.S. media, Hoyer didn’t directly reply: “We’re in a time when you need to focus on defeating Hamas, and we need to ameliorate the injury and carnage to innocent children and noncombatants.”

House Democrats indicated frustration that government funding measures expected to be considered this week will limit U.S. funding for the main United Nations relief agency for Palestinians, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency or UNRWA. But they conceded those restrictions were likely necessary to ensure government funding gets done, given GOP resistance to significant further aid through the agency.

“It really complicates our ability to effectively surge humanitarian relief to Gaza. UNRWA is the agency on the ground that does it better and more than anyone else,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), echoing critiques of other members. “It’s very wrongheaded to completely zero out funding for UNRWA because of a few bad apples.”

The exact language of the aid restrictions in the spending deal has not yet been released.

Amid blowback from his remarks, Schumer has received support from some outside groups. Eight member organizations of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a statement on Wednesday defended Schumer’s “constructive critique made by one the U.S. Congress’ most passionate champions of a strong and safe Israel.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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