Schumer’s rebuke of Netanyahu shows the long, fragile line the US and allies walk on interference

(Uncredited / Associated Press)

Schumer’s rebuke of Netanyahu shows the long, fragile line the US and allies walk on interference



March 16, 2024

Republicans and Israeli officials were quick to express outrage after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war in Gaza and called on Israel to hold new elections to hold. They accused the Democratic leader of violating the unwritten rule against interfering in the electoral politics of a close ally.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell responded to Schumer by saying it was hypocritical for Americans hyperventilating about interference in our own democracy to call for the removal of a democratically elected leader.

House Speaker Mike Johnson said Schumer’s call for new elections was inappropriate. Even Benny Gantz, a political rival of Netanyahu and a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said Schumer’s comments were counterproductive.

Schumer’s sharp rebuke of Netanyahu, the senator, saying the Israeli leader had lost his way and was an obstacle to peace, was certainly provocative, but hardly norm-breaking. Both American leaders and American allies are increasingly involved in electoral politics beyond the waterfront.

Look no further than the close and historically complicated relationship that American presidents and congressional leaders have negotiated with Israeli leaders over the past 75 years.

It’s an urban legend that we don’t intervene in Israeli politics, and they don’t try to intervene in ours, said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who serves as a Middle East negotiator worked in Republican and Democratic administrations. We mediate and they mediate ours.

In 2019, with just weeks to go before Netanyahu faced a difficult election, then-President Trump abruptly declared that the US recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, giving Netanyahu a political boost just as he desperately needed.

In 2015, Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress during sensitive negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and shortly before national elections in Israel.

Boehner did not coordinate the invitation with President Obama’s administration. Obama declined to invite Netanyahu to the White House during the visit, with White House officials saying such a visit so close to the Israeli elections would be inappropriate.

The standard that Obama set for a visit to the White House was not the standard that Bill Clinton endorsed years earlier. In April 1996, Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres to the White House to sign a $100 million counterterrorism deal shortly before the Israeli elections. Years later, Clinton acknowledged in an interview that he was trying to give Peres a boost among voters.

It did not work; Peres lost to Netanyahu.

In practice, excluding allies from elections has been a professed American value rather than a stated protocol. American leaders have often demonstrated a varsity versus junior varsity approach when it comes to how openly they meddle in friends’ internal politics, says University of Indianapolis historian Edward Frantz. The larger the ally’s economy, the less likely American leaders will openly meddle in the election.

American politicians want to have it both ways, Frantz said. There are times when American leaders want and need to speak out and have their say. But there is reason to stick close to the election lines. You also don’t want foreign governments interfering in our own internal politics.

The lines have only become blurrier in recent years and are being tested by how world leaders approach the rematch between Biden and Trump in November.

This month, last week,

During a visit to the White House on the 25th anniversary of Poland’s accession to NATO, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk made no secret of his desire to see Biden win another term.

I want you to know that your campaign four years ago was truly inspiring for me and for so many Poles, Tusk said, with conservative Polish President Andrzej Duda at his side. “And we were encouraged… after your victory. Thank you for your determination. It was something very important, not just for the United States.”

Tusk later blamed Johnson, the Republican House speaker, for Washington’s impasse on a spending bill with $60 billion in aid to Ukraine, which is running out of ammunition and weapons in its war with Russia.

This is not some political skirmish that only has significance here, on the American political stage, Tusk said. He told reporters that Johnson’s inaction could cost thousands of lives in Ukraine.

Last week,


this month

He criticized Trump for hosting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbn, who has described a possible Trump comeback as the only serious chance of an end to the war in Ukraine.

Hungary, like the US, is a member of NATO. Orbn has become an icon for some conservative populists because he stands up for illiberal democracy, full of restrictions on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights.

Biden noted at a recent campaign event that Trump met with Orbn, saying the Hungarian leader is “looking for dictatorship.” Hungary called on the US ambassador to Budapest, David Pressman, to express his dissatisfaction with the president’s comments.

White House National Security


Jake Sullivan said the president stood by his comments.

Our position is that Hungary is engaged in an attack on democratic institutions, and that remains a matter of serious concern to us, Sullivan said.

Schumer’s comments in the midst of Israel’s difficult five-month war put new strain on the US-Israel relationship.

That relationship has already caused tensions to rise between Biden and Netanyahu as the Palestinian death toll rises and innocent civilians suffer, while the US and others struggle to get aid past the Israeli blockade to Gaza. National elections are scheduled for 2026 in Israel, although they could well happen sooner.

Biden said in a brief call with reporters on Friday that he thought Schumer had given a good speech.” However, the president and White House officials did not endorse Schumer’s call for an election.

There have been other moments of deep tension in the US-Israel relationship.

President Eisenhower pressured Israel with the threat of sanctions to withdraw from Sinai in 1957, in the midst of the Suez Crisis. Reagan delayed the delivery of F16 fighter jets to Israel at a time of escalating violence in the Middle East. President George HW Bush withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees to force the cessation of Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories.

But Schumer’s push for new elections is entering uncharted territory.

All those other crises were more or less one-offs, Miller said. They were attempts to move Israel on a specific issue in a targeted, discreet manner. What you have now, after years of Netanyahu’s premiership, is a fundamental crisis of confidence that goes to the heart of the US-Israel relationship.

Madhani writes for the Associated Press.


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