Pro-Israel but anti-Netanyahu: Democratic Party leaders try to find the middle ground

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under unusual criticism from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Jacquelyn Martin / POOL / AFP;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link "> Jacquelyn Martin / POOL / AFP</a>

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on March 14, 2024, “The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel.” It was an extraordinary public criticism of a longtime ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by an American government official.

Against the background of imminent famine in Gaza, Schumer, the top Democrat in Congress and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in the U.S., said Netanyahu was “an obstacle to peace” and called for new elections in Israel.

Leading Democratic senators praised Schumer’s speech, while the GOP panned it. President Joe Biden said it was “a good speech” that raised concerns “shared not only by him but by many Americans.”

The Conversation’s senior politics and democracy editor, Naomi Schalit, interviewed scholar Dov Waxman about Schumer’s speech. Waxman, an expert on both Israeli politics and the American Jewish community’s relationship with Israel, described the speech as a watershed moment in the U.S.-Israel relationship.“

Netanyahu’s response to Schumer was, "The people of Israel will choose when they will have elections, and who they’ll elect.” What does Schumer’s speech mean for Netanyahu, both in the U.S. and in Israel?

I don’t think most Israelis are paying much attention to what Schumer said. They’re focused on the war and especially on the current negotiations to secure a cease-fire and hostage agreement.

But Schumer is right that the vast majority of Israelis have completely lost confidence in Netanyahu and his government and want him to be replaced as prime minister. Yet there isn’t majority support for immediate elections. A plurality of Israelis want early elections to take place after the war ends. At the same time, I think the positions Schumer was putting forward – particularly about the need to create a Palestinian state – are not ones that are widely shared by most Israelis.

Schumer’s speech matters more for American politics than for Israeli politics. It marks the culmination of a process that’s been underway for some time, whereby the Democratic Party has increasingly turned against Netanyahu. This is not just the progressive wing of the Democratic Party but also the moderate wing and the most pro-Israel Democrats. Schumer is one of the most pro-Israel senators in American history. He’s had a long relationship with Netanyahu and was considered a friend of Netanyahu. So, the break between Democrats and Netanyahu is now complete. Netanyahu has clearly become persona non grata for the Democrats.

What was Schumer’s strategy in giving the speech?

What Schumer, and to some extent the Biden administration, are doing is trying to position the Democratic Party as anti-Netanyahu but not anti-Israel. They want to make a distinction that it is possible and indeed necessary to take issue with Netanyahu’s policies, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not supporting Israel.

That’s an attempt to triangulate between the different political pressures that the Democrats are under and the political risks that Democrats now face. President Biden’s strong support for the war in Gaza has become a domestic political liability for him and for the Democratic Party as a whole. On the one hand, they need to try to win back support among progressives, younger Democrats and especially among the Arab American voters who are outraged over the Biden administration’s support for the war. But they need to do that without alienating Jewish American voters and moderate Democrats who support the war and, broadly speaking, support Israel.

This is an attempt to find that balance without incurring major domestic political costs.

A man expresses his gratitude toward U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer during a protest calling for the release of hostages and against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government on March 16, 2024, in Tel Aviv, Israel. <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images</a>

Schumer can say what he wants, Biden can say what he wants, and Netanyahu keeps doing what he wants. If what Schumer and Biden say doesn’t affect the behavior of the Israeli government, can it be effective domestically in the U.S.?

Buried in the speech is a real political bombshell. Schumer said that if Netanyahu and his coalition remain in power and continue to pursue “dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing U.S. standards for assistance,” then the U.S. will be forced to “play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

It’s not the first time that a U.S. senator or policymaker is raising the threat of potentially conditioning U.S. military aid. But Schumer doing so sends a message to Israeli policymakers that mainstream, pro-Israel Democrats are now willing to consider something that was previously politically taboo, namely conditioning U.S. aid to Israel. That could induce changes in Israeli policy.

What kind of changes?

Specifically, the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza, which has become a major public dispute between the U.S. and Israel. But whatever changes it does bring about in Israeli policy toward Gaza and the Palestinians, I don’t think it’s going to be nearly enough to satisfy the left or progressives and others who oppose the Biden administration’s policy.

But there’s a moderate middle, particularly many American Jews, who don’t want the Biden administration to stop supporting Israel but dislike Netanyahu and his right-wing policies. What Schumer is saying is that the Democratic Party is the party for them, that it is a place for people who, while supporting Israel, have deep concerns about the Israeli military’s conduct in Gaza, and are frustrated with the Israeli government’s refusal to present a real plan for the day after, and its stonewalling on any prospect for a Palestinian state.

Schumer is expressing the sentiments of those voters, who we often don’t hear about because it’s often those on the left and the right whose voices drown out that silent majority in the middle.

Are Schumer and Biden ahead of American public opinion or behind it?

I think they are, as is typical of politicians, behind public opinion. The distinction between supporting Israel while criticizing its government has already been largely accepted for some time now among Jewish Americans. But it hasn’t always been reflected among politicians, who felt that when they supported Israel, they had to uncritically support the Israeli government.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

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