Schumer’s Sharp Israel Criticism Highlights Shift in Democratic Party

Tom Brenner for The Washington Post
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), shown earlier this month, says “Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah.”

Last month, President Biden issued his sharpest rebuke yet of Israel’s military response in Gaza, calling it “over the top.” Early this month, Vice President Harris called for an “immediate cease-fire” for at least six weeks. Then on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) went even further, calling for a new election in Israel, which he said risked becoming a “pariah” under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

When the war began following Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, just a few far-left Democrats in Congress denounced Israel’s military response. Many in the party said Israel had the right to defend itself and to root out the Hamas terrorists who orchestrated the massacre. But now, amid vocal pressure from liberal protesters, activists and others in the party, top elected Democrats have adopted an increasingly hostile tone toward the Israeli government.

Increasingly, Democrats have said Israel has gone too far as the war has stretched on for months, killing around 30,000 Palestinians, including women and children, and displacing nearly 2 million people who do not have access to food, water and medicine. Schumer’s sharp rebuke of Netanyahu on the Senate floor Thursday is the latest criticism of Israel from a high-ranking Democrat.

“Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah,” Schumer said.

Opinions about the war in the Middle East loom over Biden’s reelection bid, with many of the voters typically aligned with the party expressing anger over his response. Public polling has shown Democrats are deeply divided, with 62 percent saying Israel’s military response in Gaza has gone too far, compared to 33 percent of Republicans who feel that way, according to a January AP-NORC poll. A little more than half of Democrats disapprove of how Biden is handling the conflict.

The displeasure is especially acute among Arab Americans and Muslims, young voters and people of color. A last-minute campaign in Michigan to protest the war in Gaza by getting Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s February primary instead of for Biden garnered more than 100,000 votes. Michigan is a crucial battleground state in the presidential election.

On Thursday, a group of Arab Americans and Muslims in Chicago rejected a meeting with senior Biden aides. The gathering had been designed as part of a broader outreach effort the White House and campaign are conducting ahead of November’s election. A majority of Democratic voters have said they support a full cease-fire, and many community leaders have said meetings with White House officials are pointless as long as Biden does not support such a move.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats have increasingly supported halting U.S. military aid to Israel and dozens of Democrats have since voiced support for a permanent cease-fire. Schumer’s scathing assessment of Netanyahu garnered widespread attention, coming from the highest-ranking Jewish elected official, who has been a stalwart supporter of Israel. It drew some criticism from Republicans and contrasted with the tone of his previous comments.

On Oct. 7, Schumer said he’d do “all I can to deliver everything Israel requires in this time of urgent need” and that friends of Israel “must stand strongly by her.” In a January statement, he urged Israel to “intensify its efforts to protect innocent Palestinian lives, and to maximize the entry and delivery of desperately needed humanitarian assistance.”

In recent weeks, Biden has toughened his criticism of Israel and Netanyahu. In December, Biden said Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” was beginning to cost Israel support around the world. “Bibi’s got a tough decision to make,” Biden said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “I think he has to change, and with this government, this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move.”

The president’s rhetoric shifted notably in early February, as it became clearer his support of Israel was becoming a political liability. On Feb. 8, Biden issued his strongest rebuke of Israel when he said its military campaign in Gaza had been “over the top.”

Biden and his aides have become especially angered by Israel’s refusal to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza as famine and starvation have gripped the enclave. Earlier this month, Biden said there were “no excuses” for Netanyahu to prohibit more aid from entering. And in an interview with MSNBC last week, Biden said Netanyahu was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

But, unlike Schumer, Biden has not called for new elections and said as recently as this week that he would never stop providing Israel weapons and support.

In calling for a new election, Schumer said Netanyahu was “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll in Gaza, which is pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows.”

After his remarks, the enduring divisions in the Democratic Party were on display.

For some Democrats, Schumer’s speech did not go far enough because he didn’t call for a permanent cease-fire. Abdullah H. Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn, Mich., the city with the largest Arab American and Muslim population per capita in the nation, appeared on MSNBC after Schumer spoke.

“Words are not enough, what we want to see is actual change in policy,” Hammoud said.