Is Chuck Schumer Playing Bad Cop for Biden?

By | Mar 18, 2024
A collage of Netanyahu on the left, Schumer is in the middle and Biden is on the right

Jewish politics and power

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1. Everyone’s talking about Schumer’s speech

Expressing concern over the path the Israeli government is taking in its conduct of the Gaza war is nothing new. Democratic politicians have been sharing this sentiment for a while, and the Biden administration, from the president to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to all the other officials involved in national security and foreign policy, have been very vocal about its feeling that Benjamin Netanyahu has taken the wrong path by ignoring the heavy death toll in Gaza, the humanitarian crisis created by Israel’s attack, and by his refusal to discuss a “day after” mechanism to control Gaza. As Biden put it only last week, Netanyahu is “hurting Israel more than helping Israel.”

But on Thursday, Senator Chuck Schumer took it a step further by suggesting that “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.” 

(For those who somehow missed the biggest news in U.S.-Israel relations, here’s a video of Senator Chuck Schumer’s Thursday speech on the Senate floor. And here’s the full transcript.)

The first question left open following the Majority Leader’s address is: Was it such a big deal?

Yes, it was. And here’s why.

This wasn’t a slip of the tongue, nor an offhand comment made in passing. Schumer must have been aware that a call from a top American political leader for elections in a foreign democracy would come across exactly as it did: as an attempt to weigh in, some would say meddle, in Israeli politics.

Even without the call for elections, other headlines from the Senate majority leader’s speech would have sent shock waves throughout U.S.-Israel relations. For one, Schumer described Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace, placing him on a list that includes right-wing Israeli politicians, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas. Furthermore, Schumer suggested that if Netanyahu does stay in power with his current government after the war is over and pursues dangerous policies, the United States “will have no choice but to play a more active role in shaping Israeli policy by using our leverage to change the present course.”

That’s quite a lot for one speech. 

But it’s not only about the words, it is also about the messenger.

2. The “shomer of Israel” factor

There are hardly any Jewish or pro-Israel activists in the United States, and especially in New York, who haven’t heard Chuck Schumer’s standard shtick about his name. When addressing Jewish audiences, he never misses an opportunity to mention that the name “Schumer” comes from the Hebrew word shomer, which means keeper or guardian, and to then proclaim that he is the shomer Israel, the guardian of Israel.

For decades, that has been the case. Schumer has been a trusted pro-Israel vote, a close ally of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and a friend to all Israeli prime ministers and dignitaries. Back in 2015, when the Democrats were torn over the Iran nuclear deal, with President Obama begging his party members to support the deal and  pro-Israel activists lobbying against it, Schumer sided with the deal’s pro-Israel detractors. (He later expressed support for the deal and spoke out against Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement.)

So Schumer has done more than enough to prove his shomer Israel credentials. And this is exactly why his speech rings louder and carries much more weight than similar comments made by progressives such as senators Bernie Sanders and Chris Van Hollen or activists on the streets chanting “cease-fire now!”

When the Number 1 Democrat, who is also the highest-ranking Jewish American in U.S. political history and who also happens to be one of Congress’s greatest Israel defenders, says that Bibi has lost his way and that Israelis should go to the polls, that means a lot.

3. Is Schumer Joe Biden’s bad cop?

The most common argument heard after Schumer’s speech on Thursday was that he was doing Joe Biden’s bidding. That anyone else calling on Israelis to dump their democratically elected prime minister would be accused of being a hater of the Jewish state and would likely be accused of antisemitism. 

According to this logic, Biden, Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan get to keep their hands clean by continuing to deliver an ambiguous message of support for Israel’s war on the one hand and a call for restraint on the other. Meanwhile, Schumer does the dirty work of saying out loud what everyone else is thinking, which is that changing Israel’s path regarding Gaza and the Palestinians will require changing its political leadership.

So was this a cynical good cop/bad cop ploy?

The White House confirmed that Schumer shared the content of his speech with senior officials before delivering it on the Senate floor. But he did not seek approval, nor was such approval given by the president or anyone from his staff. Biden later called it “a good speech,” and the White House told reporters that it is up to the Israeli people to decide when they’d like to hold elections.

This was a wink-and-nod type of coordination between Schumer and Biden. The majority leader, well aware of Biden being fed up with Netanyahu, wrote a harsh speech and presented it to the White House. Had anyone around Biden thought it was too outrageous to deliver, Schumer would have been asked to tone it down. Saying nothing meant that the president didn’t believe there was anything wrong in increasing the dosage of “tough” in Biden’s tough love formula.

4. The “two states of Israel” solution

At its core, Schumer’s address was a clearer manifestation of a tactic already adopted by the Biden White House, which is to distinguish between Netanyahu and the people of Israel. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, in a March 9 CBS interview, was the first to spell it out, stating that “It’s important for us to distinguish or at least not conflate the Israeli government with the Israeli people.” Biden later reiterated the point when singling out Netanyahu as the cause for Israel’s fraught relations with the United States and the international community.

Schumer took this argument and put it into practical terms, basically saying that if the problem isn’t with Israelis but rather with their elected leader, it is time to elect a new leader and thus put an end to this dichotomy.

But is that true?

Public opinion polls in Israel show beyond any doubt that Israelis dislike Netanyahu and his coalition members. They do not trust Netanyahu and will not vote for him in the next election. Schumer definitely got it right on that point.

But there’s an important caveat. While Israelis deeply dislike Netanyahu and see him as responsible for October 7 failures, they show a surprisingly high level of agreement with some of the key principles of his Gaza policy. A significant majority of Israelis support Netanyahu’s intent to expand the war into Rafah, a move strongly opposed by Biden. Most Jewish Israelis oppose a move toward a two-state solution right now, just as Netanyahu does, and a majority of Jewish Israelis are against broadening humanitarian aid to Gaza through international organizations.

So it’s a yes and no. In a world in which Schumer’s wishes come true and Israel calls early elections, Netanyahu would be out, but his key policies regarding the war would remain intact.

5. Did the move backfire?

Netanyahu’s Likud party is doing a little better in polls this week. It’s a tiny uptick that could be related to Israeli voters’ dislike of foreign interference and appreciation for Netanyahu’s standing up to America, but it could also be attributed to internal political changes within the opposition. Or it could just be a meaningless, random shift of a couple of percentage points.

Which is to say that Netanyahu has no reason to believe Schumer’s speech will help him stay in power. His numbers are still abysmal. 

But Netanyahu can still exploit the speech. “Under my leadership,” Netanyahu can now argue, “we’re standing up to the greatest power who seeks to derail us from our track to dismantle Hamas and achieve complete victory.” This may not be true factually, but it is a strong political argument that could resonate with Israelis’ sense of patriotism and independence. “We’re not a banana republic,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, already starting to play up his position as the lone embattled leader standing up to the most powerful man in the world.

And it is also an excuse. The pressure Biden, Harris and Schumer exert over Netanyahu to change course, to seek a cease-fire and to restrain Israeli forces is exactly the kind of explanation that can come in handy once the war is over and Netanyahu is called by Israeli voters (and probably by a national inquiry committee, as well) to defend his actions. Hamas is still in power in Gaza? It’s Biden’s fault. He forced me to refrain from attacking Rafah. Israel is isolated internationally? It’s Harris’s fault. She told the world Gaza is a “catastrophe.” Israelis don’t feel safe to come back to their homes along the southern and the northern borders? It’s Schumer’s fault. He pushed us into elections instead of allowing me to finish the job.

In a world full of bad news, Netanyahu can make some lemonade from the lemons handed to him by Biden and Schumer.

Top image: From left to right: Netanyahu, Schumer and Biden. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO (CC BY-SA 3.0) / (CC BY 4.0) / Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Hanay (CC BY-SA 3.0).

One thought on “Is Chuck Schumer Playing Bad Cop for Biden?

  1. Allen Eli Segal says:

    After 12 years in power, and total catastrophic failure under P.M.’s watch, in the land of No Term Limits, the time for election is now.
    Military echelon, intelligence community and some Likud members have acknowledged publicly responsibility for this calamity.
    Not bibi. And he never will. Let the people of Israel decide whether he is still worthy of the position of Prime Minister.

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