Schumer calls for Israeli regime change but opposes permanent ceasefire
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, poses for a picture with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, in Capitol Hill, Washington, February 15, 2017. Schumer is calling on Israel to hold new elections. Schumer says he believes Netanyahu has "lost his way" amid the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and a growing humanitarian crisis there. Schumer is the first Jewish majority leader in the Senate and the highest-ranking Jewish official in the U.S. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

WASHINGTON—Public pressure and scenes of starving Gazans denied needed food, water, and medicines by Israeli refusal to allow aid convoys into the besieged territory has led Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to call for elections in Israel to replace Benjamin Netanyahu. The significance of his move is enormous given his almost total support of Israel over the years and his position as the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in the nation.

He called for a temporary ceasefire to allow aid into Gaza but opposed a permanent ceasefire, which he said would give Hamas time to re-arm.

Schumer’s call for the removal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, signals too that many other lawmakers in top positions are concerned enough about the mass movements here and abroad that are demanding a ceasefire that they too are rethinking what they have to say in public about the ongoing war on Gaza.

As Schumer announced his position, it was even more significant that seven additional senators came out in support of what would really apply the necessary pressure to halt what Amnesty International is now calling the “engineered starvation” of Palestinians by the U.S.-backed Israeli forces in Gaza – an immediate and total cutoff of any and all aid to Israel by the United States. Those senators note that action must take place now and not wait until Netanyahu is voted out of office.

While the activists in labor and allied movements that have been calling for a ceasefire can celebrate the signs that their campaigns are having a positive effect, the conclusion they are drawing from these developments is that they should continue and even step up the pressure on the warmakers in Washington and Tel Aviv. The call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire will continue, they say.

Schumer’s call for regime change in Israel is particularly important, however, because of his long, strong, and outspoken support for Israel ever since he first ran for a New York State Senate seat from Brooklyn.

Obstacle to peace

In his 45-minute detailed speech, Schumer called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an obstacle to peace, a ceasefire, and ending the Israeli war on Gaza.

If Israeli voters don’t oust Netanyahu at their next election, replacing him with someone who favors a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and off-and-on wars, there could be consequences to the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Schumer warned. He did not specify them.

Seven senators, led by Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., did say the consequences to the U.S.-Israel relationship should happen now, in a letter to President Biden urging the cutting off all military aid. They pointed out that a law passed in 1961 mandates ending such aid to any ally that violates humanitarian standards. Continuation of U.S. military aid to Israel, then, is in violation of U.S. law.

Schumer’s plan calls for a more gradual approach to ending the war on Gaza. Israeli voters should replace Netanyahu with a government that truly seeks a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, Schumer said. If they return Netanyahu to power, and he continues the massive military onslaught against Gazans, then the U.S. “should wield all influence it has to force a change in Israeli policy.”

Schumer made news—and prompted an extended and partisan Senate floor debate—by his demand that Israelis use their next election to replace Netanyahu, who has opposed a two-state solution, and undercut peace moves, for years.

Among other obstacles to peace Schumer listed was Hamas, which he said set off this latest war by invading Israel five and a half months ago. He did not mention the decades of repression of Palestinian rights by Israel that contributed to and laid the groundwork for the current crisis and the war on Gaza.

Explaining his gradualist approach to solving the conflict as opposed to the immediate approach of Sanders and the other six of his Democratic senators, Schumer said, “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 U.S. 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.”

“People are starving,” the seven senators calling for a ceasefire said. “As you have said, ‘We’re going to insist that Israel facilitate more trucks and more routes to get more and more people the help they need. No excuses. Because the truth is, aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough.’

“The United States should not provide military assistance to any country that interferes with U.S. humanitarian assistance. We note the language of the statute does not preclude U.S. assistance for missile defense, such as the Iron Dome, or other defensive systems provided to Israel pursuant to the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act.”

But “federal law is clear, and, given the urgency of the crisis in Gaza, and the repeated refusal of Prime Minister Netanyahu to address U.S. concerns on this issue, immediate action is necessary to secure a change in policy by his government.”

Whether Biden will pay attention to the senators who back an immediate ceasefire is dubious, many opponents of the war on Gaza say.

Sanders has tried, twice, to cut off the aid, and his colleagues decisively rejected the move. And except for a growing band of ceasefire advocates, the Republican-run House features a bipartisan consensus for aid, and for Israel’s right to defend itself. Those lawmakers also lay all the blame on Hamas and ignore the many decades of U.S.-backed Israeli suppression of Palestinian rights.

Biden is increasingly rhetorically critical of the Israeli military’s massive war against Gazans and the U.S. is warning Israel to “take all needed measures to protect civilians in the southern Gazan city of Rafah.” So did Schumer. Netanyahu apparently isn’t listening.

Israeli bombing, using U.S.-made and U.S.–bought weapons, has forced more than a million Gazans to flee to Rafah, with many now living in tents or bomb-damaged buildings. Despite the carnage and 35,000 dead Gazan civilians, Biden still wants lawmakers to approve billions more in military aid to Israel—money that actually flows to U.S. arms manufacturers.

Buried deep in his speech, Schumer advocated a temporary ceasefire to allow aid shipments to resume and increase and lauded Biden for airdropping food to the Gazans and for planning to build a pier in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of northern Gaza, to receive aid ships. That plan disregards the fact that Israel controls the waters off the Gazan coast, just as it controls other entrances to Gaza.

The UN and Amnesty International said that both the air dropping of food and the building of the floating port are totally inadequate and are nothing more than public relations rather than meaningful attempts to end the starvation. Israel must open the border crossings to allow the passage of hundreds of food trucks every day into the territory, they both say. Starvation and disease are already rampant in Gaza.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.