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Netanyahu says Schumer call for Israel election was inappropriate

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

By Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told CNN on Sunday that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's speech in which he urged new elections in Israel was "totally inappropriate."

In a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday, Schumer, a longtime supporter of Israel and the highest-ranking Jewish U.S. elected official, called for new elections in Israel and said Netanyahu was an obstacle to peace.

"I think what he said is totally inappropriate. It's inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there," Netanyahu said in the CNN interview.

The speech reflected growing frustration in Washington with Netanyahu, his management of the war in Gaza and failure to do more to protect Palestinian civilians and allow more aid deliveries into the enclave. International criticism of U.S. support for Israel has mounted due to the death toll and starvation crisis in Gaza.

Schumer said it would be a "grave mistake" for Israel to reject a two-state solution and urged negotiators in the Israel-Gaza conflict to do everything possible to secure a ceasefire, free hostages and get aid into Gaza.

Netanyahu stood firm on Sunday, saying a Palestinian state would be "the greatest reward for terrorism in history."

"Hamas had a de facto Palestinian state in Gaza. And what did they use it for? To massacre Israelis and the worst savagery that was meted on Jews since the Holocaust," he said on Fox News.

President Joe Biden on Friday said Schumer's comments echoed the concerns of many Americans, describing the remarks as a "good speech."

Still, White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Sunday that Biden believed it was up to Israel to make its own decisions about internal politics.

"We respect the sovereignty of the Israeli people," Kirby told Fox News Sunday. "The president believes it's up to the Israeli people and the Israeli government to determine if and when there's going to be new elections."

Schumer, in a statement released by his office in response to Netanyahu's CNN interview, said: "It's a good thing that a serious discussion has now begun about how to ensure Israel's future security and prosperity once Hamas has been defeated,"

In Israel, Netanyahu dismissed international pressure on Sunday and said Israel's military would push into Rafah, the last relatively safe place in the tiny, crowded Gaza enclave after more than five months of war.

Israel's allies have repeatedly urged Netanyahu not to attack Rafah, where more than a million displaced people from other parts of the devastated enclave have sought shelter, without a plan to protect civilians.

Republican congressman Michael McCaul, who leads the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Schumer's Thursday speech on Netanyahu.

"You don't talk about toppling a government in a democracy," McCaul told Fox News Sunday, calling Schumer's remarks "very inappropriate" and "embarrassing."

Schumer also criticized Palestinians who support Islamist group Hamas, and said Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas also should step aside.

Schumer raised the possibility of Washington using its leverage if Israel does not change course. Still, he did not go as far as suggesting a step some Democrats advocate: introducing legislation to make easing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza a condition for the U.S. providing more weapons to Israel.

Israel's military assault on Gaza has displaced nearly its entire 2.3 million population, caused a starvation crisis, flattened most of the enclave, killed over 31,000 people, according to Gaza's health ministry, and led to accusations of genocide being probed in the World Court.

Israel denies the genocide charges and says it is acting in self defense after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel from Hamas that killed some 1,200, according to Israeli tallies, and took scores of hostages.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Heather Timmons and Bill Berkrot)