US and Israel trade barbs as Senate leader calls for Netanyahu’s exit

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The US-Israel relationship erupted on Thursday after America’s most prominent Jewish politician called for Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government to be replaced, accusing him of weakening his country’s “political and moral fabric” and being an “obstacle to peace”.

Chuck Schumer, a close ally of President Joe Biden and the most senior Democrat in the US Senate, said that Washington should use its leverage over Israel to force Netanyahu’s ruling coalition to adopt a more moderate course, if it remained in power after the war with Hamas.

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7. The world has changed — radically — since then, and the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past,” Schumer said in a speech to the Senate on Thursday.

“If prime minister Netanyahu’s current coalition remains in power after the war begins to wind down, and continues to pursue dangerous and inflammatory policies that test existing US standards for assistance, then 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.”

Netanyahu had been “too willing to tolerate the civilian toll” in Gaza and was “pushing support for Israel worldwide to historic lows”, the Senate majority leader said. “Israel cannot survive if it becomes a pariah,” he said.

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Herzog, hit back, branding Schumer’s comments “counterproductive”, while Netanyahu’s Likud party said that Schumer should “respect” Israel’s government.

“Israel is not a banana republic, but an independent and proud democracy that elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” Likud said.

John Kirby, spokesperson for the US National Security Council, said Schumer had told the White House in advance what he was planning to say. But he sought to distance the White House from the Senate majority leader’s comments, saying that the Biden administration remained “focused on making sure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself, while doing everything that they can to avoid civilian casualties”.

The speech by Schumer, a longtime supporter of Israel, comes amid growing anger in Washington at the way that Netanyahu’s coalition, which is dependent on the support of far-right extremists, has been prosecuting the war, which erupted after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 31,300 people, according to Palestinian officials, as well as displacing more than 1.7mn of its 2.3mn inhabitants, and fuelling a humanitarian crisis that has left many in the enclave on the brink of starvation.

Over the weekend, Biden said the Israeli prime minister was “hurting Israel more than helping Israel”, while a US intelligence assessment released earlier this week said that domestic distrust in Netanyahu was mounting and his rule was “in jeopardy”.

That assessment sparked an angry response from Netanyahu’s government with a “very senior” Israeli official widely assumed to be the prime minister issuing a statement to local media accusing the US of seeking to oust him.

“Israel is not a protectorate of the US but an independent and democratic country whose citizens are the ones who elect the government. We expect our friends to act to overthrow the terror regime of Hamas and not the elected government in Israel,” the very senior official said.

In his speech — which came as the US imposed more sanctions on extremist Jewish settlers that it accused of undermining the stability of the occupied West Bank — Schumer said the US should increase the pressure on Israel to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“The US government should demand that Israel conduct itself with a future two-state solution in mind,” Schumer said. “We should not be forced into a position of unequivocally supporting the actions of an Israeli government that includes bigots who reject the idea of a Palestinian state.”

“Nobody expects Prime Minister Netanyahu to do the things that must be done to break the cycle of violence, preserve Israel’s credibility on the world stage, and work towards a two-state solution,” he added.

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington

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