Chuck Schumer’s speech widens rifts over Israel in Congress

Gun Rights

The seething tensions and divisions in the United States over our policy toward Palestine were already boiling over, and it’s is looking like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer might have lit the match that can make it explode. The long-term result might be the end of the bipartisan consensus on Israel.

Schumer’s speech in the Senate last week ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill. It was certainly a surprise. Schumer is often referred to as the “highest-ranking Jewish elected official,” but there’s more that makes him such a key figure.

Chuck Schumer is a long-time pro-Israel zealot, so much so that he tried to sabotage fellow Democrat, President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment, the Iran nuclear deal, and did so largely at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu. Schumer has always espoused the view that disagreements with Israel should be handled outside of the public eye, if they must be pursued at all. 

Schumer has gone so far as to define his own role in the Senate as a “guardian” of Israel’s well-being, a play on his name (shomer in Hebrew means guardian) and a disconcerting statement of loyalty to a foreign power that is both inappropriate for a United States senator and a highly irresponsible reinforcement of a classic antisemitic trope. 

You Might Like

This was the man who stood up on the Senate floor and called on Israelis to replace their prime minister. It was a huge surprise to people on all sides of the Israel-Palestine debate. “At this critical juncture,” Schumer said, “I believe a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel, at a time when so many Israelis have lost their confidence in the vision and direction of their government.”

Such an unambiguous call for Netanyahu’s ouster is unprecedented in Congress. It got some people over-excited, enough so that when Schumer continued by saying that “…if extremists continue to unduly influence Israeli policy, then the Administration should use the tools at its disposal to make sure our support for Israel is aligned with our broader goal of achieving long-term peace and stability in the region,” they interpreted that as a call for conditioning military aid to Israel. 

That’s a pretty vast overstatement of what Schumer said. Schumer pretty clearly did not intend to call for conditioning, let alone suspending or ending, military aid to Israel. But he was clearly communicating that Congress might do it in the future if Israel kept defying U.S. laws governing such military support.

Legitimizing debate on conditioning U.S. support for Israel

Schumer was reading the tea leaves, recognizing that conditioning aid to Israel was gaining quite a bit of traction among Democrats, and that this has greatly accelerated since the onslaught on Gaza started. He is surely aware that by even hinting at this, he, as Senate Majority Leader, was legitimizing the idea as worthy of debate in Congress. 

Again, there is no reason to believe that Schumer himself would ever support any threat to military aid to Israel. This was part of his warning to Israel about what Netanyahu was doing to its standing internationally and in the United States. 

But Republicans, naturally, pounced on Schumer’s statement. In his typically irrational manner, Donald Trump called Schumer “anti-Israel.” He was in good company. The radical, ultra-right commentator, Caroline Glick even went so far as to call Schumer antisemitic

Trump, though, was making a more strategic political attack than we are accustomed to seeing from him. Speaking to another notorious antisemite, Sebastian Gorka on Gorka’s podcast, Trump responded to a Gorka asking why he thinks Democrats hate Netanyahu by saying, “I actually think they hate Israel. I don’t think they hate him, I think they hate Israel. And the Democrat Party hates Israel. Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion. They hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves because Israel will be destroyed.”

Schumer correctly blasted Trump’s statement as antisemitic. But there was also a grain of truth in it. Schumer is certainly not oblivious to the fact that the policies of the head of his own party, Joe Biden, are threatening to hand victory to Trump in November. Schumer can see those votes, not only in the marches for ceasefire, but in the tens of thousands of votes for “uncommitted” in democratic primaries. 

In his clumsy and reckless way, Trump is trying to pull Israel out of its increasingly fractured bipartisan status and make it a wholly Republican issue, albeit one that will always have a certain amount of Democratic support as well. 

The bipartisan support for Israel seems to be cracking on the political left in this country.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel

The dynamic is similar to the National Rifle Association. When it comes to a recklessly illiterate interpretation of the Second Amendment, the NRA puts most of its weight behind Republicans, but there remain a significant number of Democrats who subscribe at least to some extent to an erroneous reading of the Second Amendment and consider their right to a gun sacrosanct. 

This is what more rational Republicans than Trump envision for Israel. They know they are not going to get the vast majority of American Jews, but that doesn’t matter to them. What they want is the full weight of pro-Israel campaign financing and lobbying on their side. 

This is what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is thinking when he scolded Schumer for his speech and then added, “We obviously have a lot in common, but it seems to me the bipartisan support for Israel seems to be cracking on the political left in this country.”

Schumer leveled the same partisan allegation against Trump after his antisemitic statement about American Jews. Schumer was correct that Republicans are trying to turn Israel into their own issue; that’s been going on for years. But McConnell was also correct in observing that unqualified support for Israel has been splitting the Democratic party and that the rift has widened considerably under the pressure of Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. 

Democrats seem to be uncommitted about how they want to approach this issue. In the past, they have insisted on their own pro-Israel credentials, but Israel is not viewed positively by many of their constituents right now. That could change if Israel halts its campaign in Gaza, allows full access for humanitarian aid and reconstruction, and re-commits to the illusory (and by now, likely impossible) two-state solution. 

But none of that seems to be on Israel’s agenda. So, instead, Democrats are trying to rebuild the structure on which they built their pro-Israel legacy, while also staking out a slightly different, newer position that they hope, probably in vain, will convince their angry constituents that they can still be on the right side of this issue. As part of that effort, nineteen Democratic senators sent a letter to Biden this week calling for a process that would lead to the United States recognizing a Palestinian state.

The proposal itself is not remarkable in most of its contents. The Palestinian “state” it calls for would be demilitarized, and as I have repeatedly noted, it is hard to imagine Palestinians blithely agreeing to stand defenseless next to a state that has attempted genocide against it and has committed the crimes Israel has for 75 years and which have intensified enormously since October 7. 

The process the senators lay out is essentially a laundry list of things Democrats have been calling on both Israel and the Palestinians to do for many years, including a halt to settlement expansion; an end to home demolitions; an end to settler violence; reforms of Palestinian education, security, and prisoner support payment systems; and yet another recognition of Israel (though this time the senators had the decency to called it a reaffirmation, which at least acknowledges that the PLO has done this before). 

But the significance of the letter is that the Democrats are talking about U.S. recognition of a Palestinian state outside the framework of negotiations with Israel. It calls for the U.S. to take independent action on this, whether Israel agrees or not. That would be a most welcome precedent and a sharp break from the past.

The letter is also significant for those who signed it. Some names would be expected. Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen has been increasingly outspoken about Israeli violations for some time now. Dick Durbin of Illinois was the first senator to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Elizabeth Warren and Rafael Warnock tend to be on the relatively progressive end of the moderately liberal Democratic Senate caucus, even if their support of Palestinian rights has been inconsistent at best.

But other names are more surprising. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has been increasingly critical of Israel over the months of its Gaza onslaught, breaking with her past where she has been quite tepid, even timid, on Palestinian rights. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is a staunch pro-Israel figure, and many of the other signatories have largely stayed away from anything about Palestine that might be controversial.

The letter itself was led by Delaware’s Tom Carper, a long-time senator who has never really taken the lead on many foreign policy issues, least of all one as potentially controversial as Israel-Palestine. 

The letter — coming largely from the Democratic middle teaming with some of its center-left members (notably, Bernie Sanders is not among the signatories) and calling for a departure from the long-held and deeply problematic principle of “resolving the conflict through bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians” — is a sign that Democrats are recognizing that the majority of their constituents do not back unconditional support of Israel, and that view is becoming more widespread in the party and more deeply held. 

Ultimately, it’s not the pro-Israel Jews that either party wants. It’s the pro-Israel campaign financing, lobbying, and media activism. Those are not minor matters in our broken political system. But ultimately, all of it is only worth the votes they bring in. For Democrats, Israel is increasingly costing them votes. Republicans have no such concern. As a result, Israel is becoming more and more a Republican issue, and while some Democrats might not like it, in the long run, that will be much better for the Democratic party, whose constituents want policies that are effective, moral, and just. That’s just not compatible with support for an apartheid, ethnocratic state. 

You Might Like

Articles You May Like

Maryland’s new approach to gun violence is all about the data
NRA-ILA Scores Injunction Preventing Enforcement of CA Youth Firearms-Advertising Restriction
‘America’s Election Handbook 2024’ Empowers Voters to Participate in the Future of Democracy
The Woman Who Chased a Shredding Truck
Idaho: Legislature Adjourns Sine Die from 2024 Session

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *